Going live! Real-time subtitling handset is premiered in London’s West End
The cast of the musical Hairspray were not the only ones to step into the spotlight when The Shaftesbury Theatre, London (in collaboration with Cambridge Consultants – the technologies and innovation group) launched AirScript™ – a pioneering handheld translating tool which allows audiences to receive live subtitles on a wireless handset. Following the success of the London launch, it is now also available for stage shows in The Netherlands.
This innovative device is not only good news for theatregoers who do not speak the show’s performing language, it can also benefit those who are visually impaired or hard of hearing, ‘whose disability means that they are currently unable to visit the theatre or are limited to special performance nights’ declared Show Translations’ (AirScript™’s developers) website. Before the handset arrived on the scene, text could only be provided monolingually via large screens located at the side of the stage. These were both obtrusive and potentially distracting for people with no requirement for this service. However, with AirScript™, every member of the audience has been considered: the handheld device is relatively small with a neck or wrist strap facility, it is ergonomically designed, soundless and wireless. Furthermore, the screen’s background colour is black as opposed to the light-emitting white screens commonly found on mobile phones and the text colour (the brightness of which can be centrally controlled) is orange – which reduces glare factor.
AirScript™ is currently available in nine languages (Chinese, English, French, Dutch, German, Italian, Japanese, Russian and Spanish) and what makes it stand out is that it relies on humans for both the translation stage and the physical delivery of the subtitles. Delivery of the subtitles to the wireless device is the responsibility of a manual operator, who is present at the live performance in order to coordinate and trigger text delivery in all languages simultaneously and at the correct time. This task cannot be automated as any live show is subject to pauses, the ‘unexpected’ and ad-libbing, for which the device boasts an ‘autoprompt’ option.
The developers were also keen to consider environmental and corporate social responsibilities in the project’s development stage. For the former, power is provided by rechargeable batteries which minimise waste and pollution as for the latter concern, the device requires minimal software (as text is not stored and merely scrolls off the screen), which has meant reduced costs for both the production phase and the end user: the handset can be hired for £6 per performance and for people with the above-mentioned disabilities – there is no charge.
The BBC’s Technology Reporter tested the AirScript™ device and although it was found to be a distraction from the live performance at times (as its very nature dictates a certain degree of concentration on the screen rather than on the stage) it was deemed a success due to its discreet size, ergonomic design, the accuracy of the translations (European languages were assessed) and its popularity with non-English speaking members of the audience.
All things considered and with positive feedback being generated both nationwide and internationally, there is no doubt that for AirScript™, the show has only just begun.