Making art for good with, er, tech…

Some of the most exciting things about the development of the arts sector over the last 5 or 10 years have been the growing respectability of socially-engaged practice, the gradual convergence of different disciplines and the emergence of ‘art for good’ as a kind of thing. It’s an area that certain bits of Talking Birds’ work has slotted into and developed alongside over the years, probably most notably perhaps with our work on accessibility. That’s why we were so chuffed that the Difference Engine, our little invention to deliver subtitles and audio description (and much, much more!) to our audience’s mobile devices, made it into the final of the Tech 4 Good Awards. This felt like ‘art for good’ competing with the bigger tech guys (somehow tech guys seem big to us even if they aren’t really, being grown up people with ‘proper jobs’). Pretty awesome just getting there. But when we looked at the competition we were up against in our category, we realised there was not a particularly high probability of actually winning – for example, against a company 3D printing artificial limbs. Surely that really *is* tech for good, however you judge these things?

Anyway, we’re now into the final four days of voting for the People’s Award (our second chance at winning something) of the Tech 4 Good awards and, despite being in the top five last week, we’ve just heard that we’ve been overtaken by some of the other contenders (unsurprising given how good all the finalists are, but disappointing nonetheless after the slightly disbelieving euphoria of last week).

We always find it a bit tricky asking for votes for things – because you don’t need to be the best, you just need more friends – but we’ve tried our best to canvas as many as possible for this because we really believe in the Difference Engine as an idea and we know lots and lots of other people (users, artists and companies*) do too. Being a finalist in the Tech 4 Good Awards is a brilliant opportunity for Talking Birds because of the attention it points in the direction of our Difference Engine project – and the potential investors that this attention attracts. We really need financing to finish the development of the Difference Engine – without that, it doesn’t matter how brilliant an idea it is, how well it works, or how transformational it has the potential to be – it just won’t get out into people’s pockets.

So that’s why, unless you happen to be a rich investor moved to write us a fat cheque (which obviously trumps the votes), we need your votes! The more we get, the nearer we become to commanding the attention of someone who believes the Difference Engine is worth investing in.

And of course, you could look on a vote for Talking Birds’ Difference Engine as really good karma too…


* (just one example of a company who thinks its a good idea and wants to use it!)


The reality of running a campaign when you are high on idealism but low on resources OR why small companies rarely win big awards.

There are 3 of us at Talking Birds. Two part time employees (with a couple of days a week each) plus one freelancer. On top of that, all 3 of us work freelance for other companies – in the region and further afield. This is by way of illustrating that we haven’t got much in the way of time or resources (or, actually, even brain space) to conduct any kind of coordinated campaign (whilst being only too aware that any serious marketing/voting campaign needs a lot of time, natch). It’s a capacity issue: even throwaway low-tech videos, it transpires, take (too much) time. And the only way that it becomes ok to spend time you don’t have making a video for something like this, is if it generates a shed-load of votes and you win something worthwhile. Maybe.

For Talking Birds, winning the Tech 4 Good People’s Award could be worth the amount of time we’ve spent on it. It won’t bring us a cash prize, but after 8 years of trying to fund our in-pocket subtitler (The Difference Engine)’s development, the attention the award brings could just mean that it becomes that little bit easier to finance. And this would speed up the process of getting it into the hands of the people who really need it (as well as hopefully reducing the likelihood that someone else nicks the idea and gets it out there first).

We’ve written about this before, but basically if everyone who reads this votes for us and shares it we could win this award – and (eventually) experimental, site-specific and other small, interesting work could become much more accessible.

Pie in the sky? Maybe. But definitely worth a try.
(That was the idealism bit).

You can make your vote for Talking Birds by clicking here – and share your support in tweets marked #T4GTalkingBirds

THANK YOU – we really appreciate your support.

Please vote for Talking Birds by clicking here and share your support in tweets marked #T4GTalkingBirds


We still need your votes! #T4GTalkingBirds

If you haven’t yet voted for Talking Birds’ in-pocket subtitler The Difference Engine in this years Tech4Good Awards, please take a moment to do so! Every vote counts – and by voting, you are helping to publicise the work we’ve been doing with The Difference Engine, attempting to make a viable low-cost solution to the inaccessibility of (particularly) experimental theatre and performance.

We don’t think it’s fair that deaf and hard of hearing audiences often think small scale, experimental or site-specific theatre (like the pieces we’ve done in cattle markets, underground car parks, hospitals or 14th century monasteries) are not for them because there is no captioning or sign language interpretation provided. We don’t think its fair that all the small companies up and down the country who are making brilliant work on a shoestring just can’t afford to make their work accessible. That’s why we came up with the Difference Engine – a low-cost way for small companies to make their work accessible to audiences.

It’s not completely finished yet – these kind of things are very tricky to raise funds for – but it works, and we know that lots of other companies would like to use it too. There’s no cash prize attached to the Tech 4 Good Award we’re a finalist for, but we hope that the interest and publicity generated will help with attracting investment – so we can get the Difference Engine out into the hands of the people that need it. And that’s why we need as many votes as possible. And tweets. And retweets…

Please can you vote for Talking Birds in the Tech 4 Good Awards?

And please tweet about it with the #T4GTalkingBirds tag, and encourage your friends to vote too.

If that’s not enough to persuade you, try Andy Parkes’ blog! Andy tested the Difference Engine on A City Grown from Words that we made to mark the closure of the Bishop Street Sorting Office and he (quite rightly!) thinks it’s ace.

Thanks ever so much – we really really appreciate your support!

Vote for us in the Tech 4 Good 2015 Awards!

Vote for us in the Tech 4 Good 2015 Awards!

» If you only have a few seconds, just read this bit:

Talking Birds’ in-pocket subtitler, The Difference Engine, is a finalist in this years Tech4Good Awards and we need your votes to help us win!

PLEASE VOTE FOR US! You can vote via the Tech4Good website or on twitter using the hashtag #T4GTalkingBirds eg “I Vote for #T4GTalkingBirds @Tech4GoodAwards”

The Difference Engine (named for Charles Babbage) delivers captions, audio description and more to audiences’ mobile devices during performances. The response from people who have used the technology included this coverage in the Hearing Times: “I followed brilliantly because…within Talking Birds someone had created a new way of captioning that I honestly think, with some backing, could be the next big thing.”

» If you have a bit more time, you can read this too:

If you’ve been following Talking Birds for a while, you probably know that we make performances in lots of different kinds of spaces (and sometimes in theatres). You probably also know that we try really hard to make all our work accessible.

In the past we’ve hired sign language interpreters and audio describers, and we’ve used LED captioning boxes – all the conventional (and very effective in the right context) solutions. But somehow none of these really worked for us. And as a rule, they don’t work for – or are just beyond the (financial) reach of – most smaller scale or experimental theatre companies. This means that users of these access services and technologies tend not to consider themselves target audiences for this kind of work – and we don’t think this is fair.

We’ve tried lots of different things to make our shows accessible – you may remember Solid Blue in 2002 where we made a specifically accessible second performance space, the Juror’s Gallery, in the cloister below the long dormitory for which we made the performance – we combined live video feeds showing things that were not seen by the upstairs audience, and brought the live performers downstairs when they were ‘offstage’. We put together a slightly Heath Robinson set up with radio mics, headphones and a rather nervous director, to deliver audio description to audiences for 25/7, our revolving-restaurant-on-top-of-a-tower-block-in-an-Olympic-city show. And when we built the Whale, right from the start we knew we didn’t want people to have to step up into it, but made sure it was accessible to audience members in wheelchairs and pushchairs – and added an induction loop.

Over the last 13 years we’ve challenged ourselves to try to think differently about accessibility – to view it as a creative possibility, rather than an add on or an after thought which spoils your best theatrical idea, which, to be honest, it sometimes had been previously.

And out of this, The Difference Engine was born. A way to deliver audio description, captioning and other stuff – programme notes, translation, misinformation, take away links and reference materials – to the phones and tablets people had begun to carry round with them. And, crucially, a way that our audiences could send things back to us – feedback, comments, their interventions into the show…

We got some funding from the Arts Council to work with Coventry University to build our first prototype and, a few years later, ACE gave us a bit more to make a second iteration. We’ve tested it on a number of different projects over the last 5 years – a chamber performance in an unheated industrial unit in the coldest November since Queen Victoria was on the throne; an installation to mark the closure of the sorting office; an uproarious alternative Christmas show featuring a Danish tourism officer dressed as a goose, to name a few…and every time we’ve had really positive feedback from users.

Despite being a *brilliant* invention (!) it is *fiendishly* difficult to raise funds for! Lots of other companies are interested in using the Difference Engine, but we need to pump a bit more money in and develop the system into a more robust format before we can distribute it more widely – and make more work inherently accessible.

So this year is *the* year. We’re determined to raise that money.

Even though there’s no cash prize, winning this Tech4Good award will really help (as would any spare cash you might have down the back of your sofa…!)

PLEASE VOTE FOR US! You can vote via the Tech4Good website or on twitter using the hashtag #T4GTalkingBirds eg “I Vote for #T4GTalkingBirds @Tech4GoodAwards”