Reflections on an Encounter with the Difference Engine

At the weekend, as reported in the previous post, Complicite trialled our captioning system The Difference Engine on their extraordinary and captivating show The Encounter. Without resorting to spoilers, The Encounter is told mostly through sound – and (among other things) powerfully explores memory – and the way that the brain processes, stores, re-plays and communicates memories and thoughts when we are stripped of the objects and devices that we now rely on to help record and subsequently prop up our recall/playback.

As the binaural sound is such a key feature, not only in the storytelling but in the audience’s experiencing of the story in a truly visceral way, it may seem a particularly challenging show to attempt to make accessible to a deaf or hard of hearing audience. But maybe it takes a show that, on the face of it, is so inaccessible, to throw the issue into relief – the company had to find a way to make it work. And, for what it’s worth, I think that with their direct feed to hearing aids, the copious numbers of capable technicians, and delivering captions via the Difference Engine, they really have.

Retrospectively, I can see that Talking Birds’ experience in making our work accessible has been similar. The more difficult we have (apparently) made things for ourselves, the more we have had to apply all our creative minds to devising the access solutions but, crucially, the better the subsequent show has been (with the accessibility almost a bonus).

When we made our foley-show-in-the-dark, Capsule, we made it to test the first iteration of the Difference Engine. Through the process of making the show, we ended up accidentally building in loads of extra challenges for ourselves (similarly to The Encounter, we were effectively attempting to make a show told mainly through sound available to deaf audiences) but in stepping up to tackle those challenges I think we made a blinkin’ brilliant show, a much better show than we might otherwise have made (and it was of course also accessible). Maybe it is precisely because it is difficult, that we can crank our inventiveness up a notch, a better solution is devised and an ultimately better show is made…?

Anyway, back to the captioning – just how well did the Difference Engine perform?

When we’ve used the Difference Engine on Talking Birds’ shows, I’ve generally, been the person operating (that is, feeding the captions out to the audience) and although I get feedback from those who’ve been testing the system, until Saturday I hadn’t had the chance to just sit in the audience and experience it as one of them, on a show I had not seen before – and it worked perfectly, and was actually just ridiculously exciting (in a kind of proud-parent sort of a way).

I had a long and rather excitable discussion afterwards with the staff member at Complicite who had operated the captions, and a deaf theatre-maker who had also come to user-test the system and was equally excited at how well it had worked. It is hard to write about what did and didn’t work without giving away too much about the show, but basically, technically everything worked as planned and the text was easy to follow. There was no sensation of tennis neck from looking from stage to screen and back again (which is something some people have questioned) and although there were aspects of the show where we felt the captions could have been better worded or formatted these were all things that are to do with finessing the captions as you see them in context and get user feedback. By the time they perform at the Barbican in February, I’ve no doubt that Complicite will have cracked this and it’ll all be there. After all, Saturday’s show was the first time they had used the Difference Engine – although you wouldn’t know it.

The icing on the cake was this comment which arrived later by email: “I had given up going to the theatre and live shows because of the isolation it creates when you cannot hear, particularly when the audience is laughing at something said on stage. So thank you for making this experience more inclusive.”

If you also trialled the Difference Engine’s captioning of The Encounter at Warwick Arts Centre on Saturday and would like to give us some feedback, we’d really like to hear from you – all comments are really useful as we continue to develop the system. Likewise, testers are really useful, so if you’d be interested in user-testing the system on other future projects, please get in touch with us

For those of you who are in or near London, we highly recommend you go and see The Encounter, which is next on at The Barbican in February, with captioned performances listed as Feb 28th and March 3rd.

NB: Although the Difference Engine is being developed to perform other functions too, it is the captioning that is most robust at the moment, hence Complicite using it for this show. Talking Birds is currently fundraising to continue to develop the Difference Engine. If you would like to help make it happen, you can make a donation towards this development here.

[Posted by  jv 12.10.15]

Could you be a captioning user-tester?

We are currently working with Complicite, who are trialling the use of The Difference Engine to make their work accessible for audiences who are deaf or hard of hearing, through captioning to mobile devices (smartphones / tablets).

They are touring their new show, The Encounter – inspired by the book, Amazon Beaming – and this weekend the show will play at Warwick Arts Centre (Saturday 10th/Sunday 11th October), before going to the Barbican in London for a 6 week run, followed by Manchester and Athens. The show opened at Edinburgh International Festival in August and has since played to sell-out audiences in Switzerland and Bristol, receiving rave reviews in the national press.

The Saturday October 10th matinee performance at Warwick Arts Centre (2pm) will be Complicite’s first shot at using the Difference Engine, and we want to gather as much feedback as possible so that we can keep improving the experience and so that we can keep developing the tool. Tickets can be booked through Warwick Arts Centre and it would be great if you go and user-test, if you could get back in touch with us afterwards to let us know what you thought. Thanks.