Exploring how technology makes the arts more inclusive!
On 4th June 2022, SRT led their first ‘wearable captioning’ performance for C-O-N-T-A-C-T. But what does that mean?
Since 2018, SRT have dedicated resources to ensure the programming of Singapore Sign Language (SgSL) at our theatre events and more recently the inclusion of ‘Creative Captioning’. The purpose of such programmes is to ensure D/deaf and Hard of Hearing patrons can attend plays and musicals with appropriate adjustments made to ensure their inclusion. However, the performance C-O-N-T-A-C-T presented the team with a new challenge to solve. C-O-N-T-A-C-T is a walk-about theatre show, where audiences follow the action around several locations in the Singapore’s Civic District. The option to position TV screens and install power and cabling had too many variables. Also, it would have ultimately limited the freedom for the D/deaf & HoH audience to watch the show from any perspective and follow the actors as they walked and talked. Enter our technologist, Saad Chinoy.
Saad Chinoy is a member of the Access Arts Hub, a volunteer consortium, who meet to further the agenda of Accessible Arts, with an emphasis of Deaf and Disabled patronage. Saad is the founder of Salvage Garden, a ‘Community Makerspace focused on Assistive Technology and TechForGood’. Saad had previously been working on a protype for a ‘speech to text’ device to support interview processes for D/deaf people. With this prior knowledge, we quickly moved through a series of consultations to repurpose and re-design the device to work on SRT’s show, C-O-N-T-A-C-T.
Firstly, we engaged SRT’s Deputy Artistic Director and Director of C-O-N-T-A-C-T, Daniel Jenkins, to gain a clear understanding of the artistic vision, and the logistics for the performance. Alongside, Daniel we worked closely with SRT’s Production Manager, Charlene Poh, who provided guidance on the technical aspects of how the show operates via a secure mobile application.
Secondly, and arguable the most important step, we needed to consult with the D/deaf & HoH community to understand their feelings, ideas, and feedback on use of such a device, for the purpose of engagement in theatre. Working with The Singapore Association For The Deaf, we were able to recruit eight D/deaf and hard of hearing patrons. The patrons offered consultancy and then attended the performance. We learnt a lot from this round of feedback, in terms of comfort, ensuring the device was adjustable to allow patrons to optimise the viewing, focus and position within their desired eyeline. Other comments for improvement included the size and colour of the caption fonts, as well overall weight, and stability of the device. Without this feedback, our final prototype would have potentially failed or been less effective for the user.
The final wearable caption device for C-O-N-T-A-C-T was made completely from ‘scratch’ at Salvage Garden. Saad Chinoy was able to use 3D printing technology to create the frames and casing. The device was battery powered and programmed with a Raspberry Pi computer connected to a mini display. The captioned text was synced to run alongside the show via a remote server, to allow the devices to connect via a WIFI hotspot.
The pilot was a great success and like all protypes and tech innovations, we have many more iterations to improve on the experience and usability of such a device. We asked the patrons for feedback after the performance, and here is what they had to say!
We liked it was…
“Hands free, separately powered, and able to adjust for personal viewing”
“The words were highlighted which was helpful to read “
“Portable, light and adjustable”
“Words are clear, especially under the sunlight, and it is light to wear”
We want to improve…
“(the) Need to adjust the distance for reading, especially for bifocal vision”
“If the screen can be slightly bigger to accommodate more words to show emotions”
“Longer length of device arm”
“Possibly could be lighter and would be better if we could control the size of the words”
To innovate in such a way, it was vital that we collaborated fully, listening to feedback from the D/deaf patrons, alongside theatre specialists and technologists. This intersection of specialism and experiences ensured a collective approach, where assumptions are challenged sensitively and the true reality of what is working or not, is clear, direct, and useful.
So, what is the future of such a device. For SRT, we hope this is a building block to create a more automated assistive performance service, where Access is always on! We will keep questioning, ‘how can all events and shows have Access built in?” However, two things are certain from our short quest for ‘wearable captions’, and that is that Deaf and Disabled audiences are ready to collaborate and must be engaged to build Access together, and technology is a sword to wield to our advantage. SRT and our partners look forward to continuing to advance such Access agendas with the user central to our developments.