Integrated immersive inclusiveness: trialling immersive technologies in the creation of inclusive and integrated theatre for deaf audiences

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: School of English


The AHRC/ESPRC Next Generation of Immersive Experiences call highlights the centrality of immersion to audiences' experience of performance: 'Whether recorded or performed live, dance, theatre, film, television and video games and other performances rely on the audiences' immersion in the experience'. However, not all audiences are easily able to experience such immersion: this research project brings together Red Earth Theatre, a small-scale touring theatre company with an established track record and commitment to research in inclusive integrated communication for young audiences (with a focus on deaf audiences) and an interdisciplinary team of researchers across arts and computer sciences at the University of Nottingham to explore solutions for those audiences for whom, up until now, immersion in performance has been hindered by modes of accessibility that divide and distract attention. Red Earth's 'total communication' approach to making theatre aims to integrate modes of communication - including metaphor, symbol, costume, set, lighting, auditory, signed, oral, written - immersively within the theatrical aesthetics of the performance, but the work required to achieve this is expensive and demanding for small- and medium-scale theatre companies. Working together through a series of iterative workshops and events with key stakeholders from the deaf community, this project will explore the potential for the use of cheap or freely available immersive technologies to support further development of integrated inclusiveness for deaf audiences in small scale touring productions. It will develop prototype approaches that can be shared with other companies and venues as well as - potentially - signposting opportunities to develop similar approaches with other groups with different accessibility needs. The Arts Council's Creative Case for Diversity, published in 2011, states that 'the Arts Council wishes to encourage those we fund and partner to be responsible for creating the conditions on the ground for further equality in the arts. We believe this approach will lead to a greater diversity of artistic expression connecting with a wider audience for the work'. This project's focus on supporting and enabling immersive experiences for audiences who are often alienated by mainstream theatre will help Red Earth deliver on that ambition.

Planned Impact

The impact of this research project will be felt at local, national and potentially international levels, and within two key sectors:

1. Audiences. This research will benefit those audiences for whom, up until now, immersion in performance has been hindered by modes of accessibility that divide and distract attention. In this initial phase of research, this group will be audiences on the spectrum of D/deafness from profoundly D/deaf to hard of hearing whose experience of going to the theatre is often that of having an interpreter 'stuck on the side' and 'having to move my head from side to side' (Red Earth Mirror Mirror research, 2017). That research demonstrated a demand for integrated and inclusive theatre for D/deaf audiences: 'Maybe D/deaf people think, "it's going to be a story with an Interpreter at the side". D/deaf people don't want that'.
a. Local audiences to whom Red Earth tours - including deaf and hearing school children and families across the Midlands region - will thus benefit from the development of prototype technologies to support accessible design for inclusive immersive theatre that is integrated in terms of both access and aesthetics from the beginning of the creative. Partner Reigate Park School highlights the importance of sharing 'cultural experiences together and with greater equity'.
b. Beyond Red Earth's audiences, our findings will also have impact for audiences on the spectrum of D/deafness from profoundly D/deaf to hard of hearing, both for other companies and venues with whom the research findings will be shared at our final event in September 2018 and through sharing of the research summary and findings via the Arts Council Creative Case organisations and more widely. By challenging traditional conceptions of accessibility by focussing specifically on immersive technologies, the project will contribute to the growing body of work conducted on deafness in the field of accessibility and will add further equality in the arts by not only designing more inclusive modes of access to D/deaf audiences, but also challenging accessibility practice at local and national levels, and potentially beyond. With 360 million people worldwide suffering from disabling hearing loss (World Health Organisation), including 9 million in the UK (British Deaf Association), this project will not only raise awareness of D/deaf communities and feed into the reflection about the role and nature of accessibility but also initiate new ways to think about the way it is put into practice, specifically in the context of deafness.
c. Longer term, we would aim to work with companies and their audiences on different spectra of disability - such as autism or visual impairment - to see if our prototype technologies and approaches could support accessible immersion for those audiences too. We will also take advantage of our links with China and Malaysia to explore the challenges of our approach in the context of international sign languages.

2. Theatre sector. Pathways to impact to the wider theatre sector are designed into the project through the partnership support of Ramps on the Moon - whose partners are working together to grow audiences for mid to large scale integrated touring, engaging increased numbers of disabled audiences, creating a strong, collaborative touring circuit of six mid to large scale venues and sharing learning and training within the sector - while NPOs in the region with a commitment to diversity (mac Birmingham, DASH, Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton, Attenborough Centre and CURVE, Leicester, Derby Theatre will be invited to the Event 3 final sharing showcase and discussion). More widely, the sector will benefit from access to the project website, summary and open source technologies and documentation, distributed nationally via Arts Council England's Creative Case lead officer, and shared with key arts organisations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.


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Title Promotional video to showcase creative captioning 
Description With input from Red Earth Theatre, we scripted, storyboarded, shot and edited a short promotional video showcasing creative captioning of the type used in Red Earth's performances. 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2019 
Impact The video was promoted very widely by the researchers, Red Earth, the Nottinghamshire Deaf Society and the University of Nottingham, on their website and via social media. The video has since been shown at Netflix headquarters in the United States, and at the 60th American Translators Association conference. The video has also been integrated into academic programmes on audiovisual translation in the Netherlands and in the UK. 
Description Working with Red Earth and stakeholders from the D/deaf community, we explored the challenges of making theatre accessibility more immersive for deaf audience members through the integration of captions into performances. We then went on to identify, scope and prototype appropriate immersive technologies to support delivery of that model at an accessible and affordable scale suitable to the needs and resources of small to medium scale companies. The technologies developed were assessed in the context of a performance and shared with local and national stakeholders from the D/deaf community.

The project's structure, revolving around a series of workshops, has helped us generate the following Key Findings:

1) We established key functional and non-functional requirements to deliver captions on a stage in an immersive way;
2) We developed a suite of software tools and used them to establish that performing captions in this way was indeed engaging for a deaf audience;
3) We worked with producers and stakeholders to create a set of guidelines for the presentation of such captions.

Taking each of these findings in turn:

1) There is a requirement for captions to be more immersive for D/deaf theatre goers. We established this through a requirements gathering workshop where we brought together stakeholders from the D/deaf community, theatrical professionals, academics and technologists. Building on Red Earth's integration of captions and British Sign Language into their show Mirror Mirror, members of the audience's responses were used to form a series of key topics that were discussed designed to elicit a framework for the creation of immersive captions on the stage. The themes discussed - Immersion, Theatricality, Media, and Technology - then led to identify specifically what technologies are appropriate to further embed captions into performances in more immersive ways.

2) In light of these findings, we identified, scoped and trialled a range of cheap and easily accessible immersive technologies - based on virtual reality projection and tracking - to support a model of accessible design for inclusive immersive theatre, integrated in terms of both access and aesthetics from the beginning of the creative process. This process culminated in September 2018 with a sharing of ideas in the context of short extracts of Red Earth Theatre's most recent production of Mirror Mirror to an audience of young people on a spectrum of D/deafness from profoundly D/deaf to hard of hearing, stakeholders from Nottinghamshire and national deaf societies and groups, and theatre makers from key regional repertory companies accessed through the Ramps on the Moon network. The tools developed are now freely available from the project's website.

3) The workshops fostered dialogue with producers and stakeholders on what stage captions should achieve, and led to the creation of a set of guidelines for stage captions for D/deaf audiences, also freely available from the project's website. They list various aspects of captions for D/deaf audiences that should help production companies focus on key aspects of their presentation and readability.
Exploitation Route The project's focus on research, development and testing of accessible immersive technologies meant that the final step necessarily involved retro-fitting immersive captions into short extracts of Mirror MIrror, whereas a key underpinning idea of our conception of integrated immersive inclusiveness - reinforced by the findings of our discussions with theatre makers and audiences across the three project events - was to promote the idea that the captions should function as a fully-fledged component of the theatrical narrative, combining with the other theatrical semiotics to generate meaning, rather than as merely ancillary, added to the product that is already considered complete in order to make it accessible, like an afterthought. This possibility will be explored in the second part of this project (for which we have been awarded follow-on funding) where we will seek to scale up the potential impact of the research through the integration of captions into a performance (Soonchild) from the very beginning of the creative process.

Building on this project, other technological solutions may also be developed in the future, particularly using technologies that were discarded from this project because of their prohibitive cost or immaturity, but some may become more affordable or indeed more mature and therefore suitable.
Sectors Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description Given the experimental nature of the research funded through this award, which focused on development and trial of prototype technologies, our impact continues to develop, and will be supported by the award of AHRC Follow on Funding for our next stage project: 'Making Accessibility Accessible: maximising the impact of the integrated immersive inclusiveness project', briefly addressed below. At the outset we should acknowledge two significant potential challenges to the success of the research: the scepticism of theatre practitioners towards academic research, and the understandable suspicion among some members of the D/deaf and hard of hearing communities for claims of access, when all too often theatre companies' attempts to provide access have been limited and detracting from the theatre experience. This challenge is underlined by the findings of 'D/deaf like me' a previous research report commissioned by our partners Red Earth Theatre, that D/deaf participants 'had not generally been involved in drama before and many held an ambivalent attitude toward theatre-going in general due to the lack of accessibility they had experienced in previous experiences'. In overcoming both challenges we benefited hugely from existing relationships of trust, built up over long periods of time, with Red Earth and with our local deaf community, aiming towards inclusiveness not just in the research outcomes but also in the design and development of the research. To date, we can report the following impacts for the following audiences: 1. For Red Earth, its directors, technicians and performers and current audiences. The company has benefited from access to the software and technologies developed as a result of the Hackfest which took place as the second engagement event of the project. This includes the creation of two software packages, detailed under the Software & Technical Products reporting tab: a. The first transformed the company's laborious process of creating individual caption slides for each moment of performance, making it possible to respond flexibly and quickly to changes in the devising of performances which is central to the company's artistic practice, to the benefit of enabling richer and more immersive relationships between performance and captioning for their audiences. b. The second software package supports the accessible projection mapping trialled through the project, which enables projection of integrated captions around the stage space onto any suitable surface. Feedback from young audiences and stakeholders from the D/deaf and hard of hearing communities praised the 'innovative placement' of captions that this enabled, allowing clearer and closer relationships between character and captioning: one audience member commented that this had been a 'joyous experience as I have seen the development of the techniques that will in the future enable deaf people to gain greater understanding of individual plays and enjoyment of theatre productions'. 2. For other theatre companies and theatre makers: a. Through the sharing showcase: we began work with other theatre companies seeking to make their work accessible to audiences on a spectrum from D/deaf to hard of hearing, to ensure pathways to impact which will be further exploited during the follow on funding phase. Technicians and creatives from Ramps on the Moon partner companies from Ipswich, Nottingham, Sheffield and Birmingham, plus key advocates for inclusive theatre, attended our final sharing showcase in September 2018, endorsing our approach and confirming their enthusiasm for sharing the outcomes of the research. Ramps on the Moon are supporting the follow on funding for impact programme of dissemination, including offering one of their partner theatres as the host for our technical workshop and showcase in autumn 2019 which will provide creatives and technicians the opportunity of hands-on practice with our projection set up. b. Through wider sharing of the summary of our research and key outcomes - including guidance on captioning and access to the software developed through the research project - which has been made available at our project website at The site and findings will be shared with other companies with the support of the Arts Council Creative Case Officer, Ramps on the Moon and the ITC (Independent Theatre Council) who are supporting the follow on project for impact and engagement. Emerging impact: The follow on funding project 'Making accessibility accessible: maximising the impact of the integrated immersive inclusiveness project' (value £39,460; AHRC contribution £31,824), which started on 1 February 2019, is designed to enable us to work with Red Earth from the very start of their design process for their 2019 production, Soonchild. This production, aimed at children aged 8+ and their families, will enable us to showcase the technologies in action, creatively embedding our previous research with the aim of: - sharing the potential of this innovative technology with audiences. Red Earth's planned tour in the autumn of 2019 will reach an anticipated audience of up to 1000 young children and family members (the show will be revived in 2020 touring to a planned minimum of 20 medium sized-venues). Feedback from audience members will inform future marketing and information on the system to support venues seeking to engage with often hard to reach audiences in the D/deaf community, ensuring that our integrated immersive inclusive technology has maximum impact with theatre audiences. - proving the stability and robustness of the system, which will be showcased to new communities of theatre venues and production companies via a hands-on technical workshop and supported via specially created video tutorials and how to guides. On completion of the Soonchild tour, the equipment used will be made available for loan to other companies who wish to trial the technologies, ensuring effective and supported pathways to impact for prospective new users of our integrated immersive incusive technology. Conference papers given and planned by Robinson and Mevel have also disseminated news of the project, its approach and findings to key practitioner communities beyond academia: Robinson's paper to the Performance and New Technologies Working Group at TaPRA (Theatre and Performance Research Association), 'Integrated, inclusive, intimate: from access to immersion with new technologies', targeted an audience of theatre makers and practitioners within and outwith the academy, while Mevel's paper, ''Integrated, Immersive, Inclusiveness', accepted for the Media for All 8 conference in Stockholm later this year, will ensure that the research is made accessible to researchers, language practitioners, translators, interpreters, broadcasters, government agencies, support groups and the audiovisual translation (AVT) and media accessibility (MA) industry, not only from Europe, but indeed from all over the world. Our research is thus already impacting the cultural and creative sector, and having societal impact in enabling access to theatre to be part of an immersive aesthetic experience, rather than an 'add-on' at the side of or above the stage, via simple and cheap technologies that are open to small theatre companies and venues. Further impacts arising from the project are captured and described in the report on AH/S010599/1 - Making accessibility accessible: maximising the impact of the integrated immersive inclusiveness project.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Creative Economy
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Description Making accessibility accessible: maximising the impact of the integrated immersive inclusiveness project
Amount £31,823 (GBP)
Funding ID AH/S010599/1 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2019 
End 12/2019
Description Collaboration with Nottinghamshire Deaf Society 
Organisation Nottinghamshire Deaf Society
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution From the outset of the Integrated Immersive Inclusiveness award we worked with Nottinghamshire Deaf Society to include them as key stakeholders in our research. We have hosted members of the society at all three of the events run through the funding period - scoping event, hackfest and final showcase - and have worked in collaboration to develop immersive captions that respond to the needs of different members of the deaf community.
Collaborator Contribution Nottinghamshire Deaf Society committed the time of staff and members to support our research, including helping us to identify and work with volunteer participants at the sessions listed above. They have been enthusiastic advocates of our work within the deaf community and their members have played a key part in the development of our research and approach via participation in discussion and feedback on different projection and captioning styles. Their support has been important in developing the case for the Follow-on Funding project also.
Impact The collaboration has fed into the design and delivery of the technologies and guidelines for immersive captioning reported elsewhere in this form, and Nottinghamshire Deaf Society has also helped with dissemination of information through the Making Accessibility Accessible project.
Start Year 2018
Description Extended Collaboration with Red Earth Theatre 
Organisation Red Earth Theatre
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Building directly on the partnership inherent in the Integrated Immersive Inclusiveness project, we have extended our relationship from one of shared exploration of themes, to a full production partnership for their 2019 show Soonchild - the subject of the Making Accessibility Accessible follow on funding. We have worked with them to gather requirements for and prototype tools for embedding immersive captions in a theatrical setting, and then supported them to use those tools across a full national touring production.
Collaborator Contribution Red earth have supported both the original Integrated Immersive Inclusiveness and Making Accessibility Accessible follow on project with access to their production team and actors throughout. Working with them on Soonchild on the development and production of their has enabled us continue our collaborative research, and scale up our findings.
Impact Public events as reported elsewhere. Soonchild touring production visited 13 venues and seen by 1885 audience members.
Start Year 2017
Title HTC Vive Based Projection Mapping 
Description Prototype software for creating 3D projection maps, Allowing captions and other content to be projected on stage. The system uses HTC vive tracking to simplify both the setting up of 'virtual screens' and to allow for trackers to be attached to those screens making them mobile in the space. 
Type Of Technology Software 
Year Produced 2018 
Open Source License? Yes  
Impact It will form the basis of our system to support red earth's next show, and a more complete version will be made available for other theatre companies to access. 
Title Word to QLAB script conversion software 
Description Tool for converting scripts written in MS word to QLAB cues. It is rather specific to driving our projection mapping software, and was an outcome of our hackfest. 
Type Of Technology Software 
Year Produced 2018 
Open Source License? Yes  
Impact We will make use of this in our ongoing colaboration with Red Earth, since they write their scripts in MSWord 
Description Hackfest 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Our second event was a hackfest, held at the mixed reality laboratory over two days. A hackfest is an opportunity for technology practitioners to rapidly prototype new tools and technology. Attendees included several researchers and academics from the mixed reality lab, as well as a number of other stakeholders who attended the first event, as well as the actors and production team from mirror mirror. The first day consisted of a brainstorming session, followed by trying out a number of possible technologies for delivering caption content on stage:

Dynamic Projection Mapping
The idea here was to simplify the process of setting up projection mapping, by using 3D spatial tracking technology associated with VR technology - specifically the base-station and tracker technology from the HTC Vive. By marking where the projector is within the system, it was possible to place captions in known locations in 3D space. We explored two different aspects of this: projecting onto a fixed, known location, and projecting onto a tracked object (using an HTC Vive tracker). We made a series of 'caption catchers' portable projection screens that could be projected on and also moved around a space.

Multi-screen Captioning
Here we used a series of tablet PCs, and created an HTML-based platform, using websockets to deliver captions to specific screens from one central server, using a simple target-notation. The system reached a complete enough standard during the hackfest for the actors to perform a scene, each holding a personal tablet PC on which their captions were displayed.

Live speech-to-text Captioning
Using technology from a human-agent spoken interaction system, we explored how well we could reasonably auto-transcribe speech in real time. This was to explore the relationship between a 'real' show and a prepared caption - reasoning that it would be nice to present exactly what an actor said on the day, and that such live-captioning would significantly reduce production overheads. Ultimately the conclusion was that applying this technology might introduce undesirable delay/errors - particularly when handling 'theatrical accents', but that it might well have a future application as the speech recognition improved. In particular we recognise that such a system might have to be specifically trained to recognise the different speech patterns used in theatre compared to everyday speech.

Augmented Reality Captioning
Here we looked at using Microsoft's Hololens to place captions in 3D space for the view of a single individual. While this worked remarkably well - in fact presenting arguably the best solution of an individual, we felt that the substantial cost of hololens technology at this stage should rule this solution out for the level of production that this project is aiming to support.

Caption Production
Here we focused on the more mundane task of actually creating the captions to be shown. Having learned of the slightly arcane process currently used by the red-earth production team, and assuming this to be representative, we built a system where captions could be entered as raw text, directly from the script, then fonts, styles, positions etc. could be applied at runtime. This aspect alone should represent a significant reduction in production overheads. We also configured the system to handle images and videos as if they were captions - knowing this is something often used in production. Finally this system was set up to receive cues from industry standard software (QLab) over OSC.

Script Extraction
Again focusing on process, we note that scripts are typically written in MS Word, which is not a format that easily lends itself to automated control. We focussed on extracting key aspects of the script - from this to automatically generate the raw-text captions that could drive the caption production system above.

Best Practices
Running in parallel to the development of the prototypes, a three-way conversation was set up between the researchers, the artistic directors from Red Earth Theatre and representatives from Nottingham Deaf Society, to explore ways in which captions are best integrated to a performance, and discuss what types of best practice from other media (particularly cinema) are transferable to theatre, particularly with regards to splitting one's attention between the captions and the action on stage.

The discussion revolved not so much around the technology, but rather around the creative, artistic use of captions as well as their integration into performances. Various aspects of the way captions are presented to the audience were discussed: text position (at the top or on one side of the stage/set, for instance), number of lines, insertion and presentation of descriptions of sounds, font and font size, colour and contrast, and to an extent the narrative possibilities of captioning.

More technical topics were also tackled, such as the way dialects, accents and non-standard pronunciation in general can be effectively portrayed in writing, and the extent to which readability may be affected.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Sharing Showcase 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Held at Reigate School in Derby, our final event was an opportunity to present our prototype to a live audience. In this case, that audience was a number of children - most of whom had hearing difficulties, as well as several stakeholders from the deaf community, theatre professionals, academics and more - some of whom had attended the previous two events, and some of whom were experiencing the project for the first time. We presented a single scene from Mirror Mirror in three different formats: 1) In its normal form - captions rear projected on a screen in the top left of the set, 2) using tablets as props, which the actors carried or placed around the set and with the captions delivered to the relevant tablet and 3) using the dynamic projection-mapping system with captions presented around the set, on the actors' aprons, and on moving objects - in this case the lid of a hat-box.

After the performance, the session was separated out into children and adults. The children gave feedback about the show to a researcher, and the adults reflected on the possibilities that the three systems represented.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Stakeholder Workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Our first event was an exercise in networking, bringing together stakeholders from the D/deaf community, theatrical professionals, academics and technologists. It began with a full showing of Red Earth's Mirror Mirror in the form that it was initially presented, and took place at Dance4 studios in Nottingham. The show features signing by the actors and captioning in one corner of the set.

Immediately after the show, each person present was asked to make a comment and a question, and we made use of these responses to form a series of key topics that would be discussed in the second stage of the workshop: notably Immersion, Theatricality, Media, and Technology.

The Immersion session explored themes like "can we enable complete access without losing the quality of the show?" Explored the critical concern of "dumbing down", explored who it was that was actually providing access, and more generally the question of whether access was even the right term - perhaps we should just be talking about communication modalities? It questioned what might fulfil the same role as music - while captions might fill in for speech, there is much more audio in any given theatrical production than speech alone.

The Theatricality session queried whether total communication represented a new form of theatre, and tried to consider the target audience. It noted that there is really no such thing as a deaf audience - noting that any two deaf people may have entirely different tastes, expectations, experience etc. This was to highlight the risk of generalisation. There were questions of tonality - how best to deliver emotion in captions etc.

The media session focussed down on the delivery mechanisms themselves, asking how caption might bests be represented. Specific questions about font size, locations and spatiality, and questions of light source interference, as well as necessary clarity. They also discussed the relationship between what is said by an actor on the day and what appears in a pre-prepared caption. With relation to signing, similar questions were explored - how important is lighting, space and spatiality, how to best draw the focus of the audience to a speaker.

Finally, the technology section explored the key themes of how to make existing captioning processes more straightforward, what kind of technologies might improve the state of the art in on-stage captioning, from projection mapping to augmented reality, to the use of modern laser projectors and personalised displays (for example glasses-based systems). Much focus was put on how much dialogue to present at any given time, and, like the media session, how to direct audiences to the correct speaker/caption.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018