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These smart glasses could be a game changer for hearing-impaired theatergoers

London’s National Theatre just took a big step toward inclusivity and accessibility, and it’s all thanks to smart glasses that look a bit like Google Glass. The glasses offer hard-of-hearing audience members live subtitles through augmented reality so they always know what witty dialogue is being bandied about by the actors on stage.

[Photo: courtesy of James Bellorini Photography/National Theatre]
The smart glasses are the latest inclusivity measure by the National Theatre. In the past, it staged special performances where it projected captions on screens on either side of the stage. However, it wanted to do more, and technology is making that possible. While it undoubtedly would have been easier for the theater to let audience members follow along on their phones, it opted for the glasses as a a more “discreet and immersive” experience that “wouldn’t disturb anyone.” (Presumably everyone will get the sick-glasses-bro selfies out of the way before the curtain goes up.) The other option would be to hire someone like Snoop Dogg’s sign language interpreter, but not everyone who is hard of hearing is fluent in sign language. The glasses are for anyone who can’t quite hear the words, but still wants to enjoy the National Theatre’s lineup of Ibsen retellings and Molière comedies.

The glasses took two years to develop, according to an interview with Jonathan Suffolk, the theater’s technical director, in the New York Times. The biggest challenge was creating software that displayed the dialogue as it was being delivered onstage, so that everyone could, say, laugh at a joke at the same time. It’s a particularly tricky problem, because actors tend to speak at different rates, and the theater wanted technology that could respond to that. What the developers came up with was a software link that follows live speech patterns and recognizes stage directions, so the subtitles appear at the right time and place. The glasses aren’t cheap, costing around $1,050 a pair.

The National Theatre has long been at the forefront of bringing tech to the theater. The immersive storytelling studio it runs with Accenture uses virtual reality to help patrons lose themselves in the theater, one story at a time.

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