The Difference Engine - affordable captioning solution from Talking Birds

The Difference Engine is a tool for delivering captions and audio description to the mobile devices of audience members at a performance (or other event).

It is designed, in particular, for site specific, promenade, small scale or touring performances, made by small companies like ourselves who, historically, have been unable to afford the conventional access solutions, or unable to fund the necessary audience development to attract deaf or hard of hearing audiences to see our work.

The Difference Engine (named after Charles Babbage's idea for a mechanical computer) has been developed by Talking Birds Theatre Company in Coventry. It was initially funded through Arts Council England, and is now being supported by the Paul Hamyn Foundation. It is currently being tested by around 20 companies across the country.

As well as afforability, the key aims are:

- to shift the focus of responsibility for accessibility to the creative staff making the work, encouraging artists to see accessibility as a creative possibility rather than a legislative burden.

- the system is 'always on' and so every show is available to those wishing to access captions (conventionally there are only a handful of accessible shows in a run).

- major (and collaborative) audience development across the sector, as more small scale, experimental (previously inaccessible) work is made accessible for the first time.

For more on the background, see:

Why the contribution is important

It democratises accessibility in the theatre sector (and further afield) by putting the responsibility for making work accessible (and the means to do this without doubling the show budget) in the hands of artists, theatre makers and other cultural producers.

"I had given up going to the theatre and live shows because of the isolation it creates when you cannot hear...thank you for making this experience more inclusive." [audience feedback]

It challenges thinking about where access sits in an organisation / the creative process, and opens up small-scale touring, experimental and site specific work for people with sensory impairments who have previously been excluded from such work by lack of appropriate and affordable access solutions: "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...I was also seriously impressed that a small bunch of people in a low-budget performing arts group saw it as important that their show was accessible to all and deemed it necessary to devise...a method to make it possible." [The Hearing Times]

It has an audience feedback mechanism built in, but also has potential for deepening companies/venues' relationships with their audiences. "First impressions, I love it!...set up is simple and unobtrusive...Like all the best innovations, after a few minutes one sees past its initial uses, it cries out to be used creatively and interactively by innovative companies...venues can use it as another advertising route and a way of passing information on to their patrons…' [Technician, Attenborough Arts Centre]


by vornster on July 26, 2017 at 07:56AM

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  • Posted by willpsaunders July 26, 2017 at 13:31

    THis is a really interesting example. Have you been able to scale it yet? At what stage are you in the process - and I'm curious to know how the project came about - was it a collaboration between an arts organisation & a digital agency?
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