National Theater in London Offers Glasses With Live Subtitles

By Alex Marshall

The technology in use at the National Theater in August. The London venue announced on Wednesday that the glasses would be available without charge for all of its 2019 season.CreditCreditJames Bellorini

LONDON — If you have hearing difficulties, the idea of spending hours watching a play may not be that attractive given the risk of key dialogue slipping from your grasp. The National Theater in London is hoping to change that.

On Wednesday, the theater introduced “smart caption glasses” that display dialogue on the lenses as actors speak. The glasses can be used without charge for the play “War Horse” and for the musical “Hadestown,” and they will be available for all of the theater’s 2019 season.

Marie Pascall, founder of Performance Interpreting, a British provider of sign language interpreters, said in a phone interview that she had recently tried the glasses and had found them “fantastic.” She said they were much better than alternatives like captions above or below the stage, which force you to look away from the action. (The National Theater uses those options for three or four performances per play each season.)

“You get a complete sense of the whole play,” Ms. Pascall said of the glasses. “You’re not having to ping-pong between the actors and words.”

Jonathan Suffolk, the theater’s technical director, said that the glasses had taken two years to develop. “We could have offered the scripts on a phone, but we wanted a technology that was much more discreet and immersive and wouldn’t disturb anyone,” he said.

The biggest challenge was creating software that allowed the words to be displayed in real time so that people wearing the glasses reached important moments — such as jokes — along with everyone else, Mr. Suffolk added. It is easy to load a script into a subtitling system and hit “go” at the start of the play, he said, but problems would then arise if actors spoke quicker or slower than expected.

The software used by the theater follows live speech and recognizes certain stage directions, like lighting changes, to ensure the subtitles appear in the right place. The words are then transmitted to the glasses over Wi-Fi.

The software follows live speech and recognizes certain stage directions like lighting changes to ensure the subtitles appear in the right place.CreditPhotograph by James Bellorini; illustration by Alex Bell

According to Andrew Lambourne, a professor at Leeds Beckett University who worked on the project, a major obstacle that the software had to overcome was recognizing speech even when actors were talking over each other or being bombarded by sound effects. “Normally with this technology, you try and track good-quality speech,” he said. “But in a play, people might speak in very strange voices, or go very fast or very slow, or sing.”

Mr. Suffolk said it was difficult to know how many people would use the equipment. The theater has bought 50 pairs, at a cost of around $1,050 per pair. One in six people in Britain lives with some form of hearing loss, according to the charity Action on Hearing Loss.

The National Theater will make the glasses available to some other British venues next year, including during a touring production of “Macbeth.” The Barbican Theater in London said in a statement that it was in talks about using them.

It may take time for the technology to spread, with cost just one of the inhibiting factors, Mr. Suffolk acknowledged. Victoria Dietrich, a spokeswoman for the Berlin State Opera, said that the venue had no plans to follow the National Theater’s lead. “While we appreciate the benefits of technology, we believe that smart glasses would not be the right approach for us as they limit the direct experience,” she said.

Glasses limit the field of view, she added, and were “a further barrier or filter between viewer and what is happening on stage.” The Berlin State Opera uses English and German captions, displayed above the stage during every performance.

Mr. Suffolk said the glasses could eventually have wider uses. They could provide translations for productions in foreign languages, he said, or even be used for enhanced reality effects. “The glasses could be used for anything,” he said. “They’re basically like wearing a mobile phone.”

The National Theater’s 2019 season, in which the glasses will be available for all performances, was also announced on Wednesday. It includes “Small Island,” Helen Edmundson’s adaptation of Andrea Levy’s novel of the same name. Directed by Rufus Norris and starting in May, the play follows the story of a Jamaican immigrant to London just after World War II.

Other highlights include “Peter Gynt,” by David Hare, a modern adaptation of the Ibsen play “Peer Gynt” that will open in July; and a revival of the Molière comedy “Tartuffe,” by John Donnelly, which opens in February. In March, the theater will show “Downstate,” about four men convicted of sex crimes who are confronted by a victim. The play just opened at the Steppenwolf, a theater in Chicago.