Smartglasses will be free and initially available for 'War Horse' and 'Hadestown' at London's National Theatre © James Bellorini

Smartglasses have already found early applications in warehouses and hospitals, but from Wednesday, audiences at London’s National Theatre will also be able to use them to read subtitles while watching plays.

After more than four years of planning, the theatre will roll out smartglasses for audience members with hearing impairments so they can see live closed captioning at all performances, instead of just during selected shows. 

The glasses will be free and initially available for War Horse and Hadestown, before they are rolled out across all new shows later this month. They will receive text from software that “listens” to dialogue on stage and matches it against pre-programmed scripts to determine what actors are saying. The theatre’s sound and light systems will also feed the software cues so the tool can identify if actors have skipped lines. 

Theatres have struggled to make plays accessible to people with hearing impairments, because performances usually change from night to night and actors frequently skip lines. Most offer live subtitling at occasional shows, when theatre workers manually cue text that appears on screens. 

“One of the areas we were aware we really hadn’t made much progress is in hearing loss,” said Lisa Burger, executive director at the National Theatre. “The tech guys had been working away seeing if there was a way to open [all shows] out to people with hearing loss.” 

To begin with, the theatre has ordered 90 sets of glasses, which were manufactured by Epson at a cost of £599 each © Cameron Slater

The National Theatre’s technology, which was developed by its IT department with consultants from Accenture and Andrew Lambourne, an academic and expert in live subtitling, will also be rolled out during the current tour of the National Theatre’s production of Macbeth. 

To start, the theatre has ordered 90 sets of glasses, paying around £599 each for 50 and receiving the rest at no cost from Epson, the manufacturer. Accenture and Epson provided most of the development services for free, according to the National Theatre, which said “hardly any” investment was required above staff costs. 

Jonathan Suffolk, technical director at the National Theatre, said the theatre could eventually license or sell the software for the smartglasses to commercial theatres to fund the purchase of more sets.

“It’s hard to contemplate how this could work without involving some kind of commercial income stream,” he said.

The glasses are controlled by a remote, which allows users to manipulate the colour and position of text © James Bellorini

The smartglasses are heavier than normal glasses and controlled by a remote, which allows users to manipulate the colour and position of text. Because subtitles are received over Wi-Fi, some members of a trial audience complained there was a short delay between the performance and the text. 

Nevertheless, Richard Lee, a theatre lover with a hearing impairment, and former chairman of Stagetext, a charity that makes theatre accessible for people with hearing disabilities, called the smartglasses a “fantastic opportunity”.

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