The world of theatre is forever changing and adapting with the continuous discovery of new technology. The most recent wave introduces the limitless possibilities that Artificial Intelligence (AI), Virtual Reality (VR), and Augmented Reality (AR) entices. The presence of these developments has changed, and still in the process of changing, the world of theatre as we know it. This redefinition of what is now capable in theatre through those introductions has also lead to modernized ways of including individuals who could not enjoy theatre in its entirety before. One of these advancements is AI empowered glasses for the blind and visual impaired.
Who does this Technology Affect?
There are roughly 3.22 million people in the United States with vision impairment (VI), as defined by the best-corrected visual acuity in the better-seeing eye. Vision disability is also classified amongst the top 10 disabilities amidst adults 18 years and older. The most common aid for this disability is the walking cane which was introduced in 1921 with little improvements to the design for the last 100 years. This was until the tangible exploration of AI Software to this current magnitude began in 2020 and piloted a piece of technology called AI Glasses. This revolutionary creation will permanently change the world for all affected by vision impairment and guide the world of theatre into the future of inclusion.
What are AI Empowered Glasses?
AI empowered glasses utilizes Artificial intelligence to extract information from the surrounding world and audibly speak a description to the user. The normal construction of this type of eyewear includes various materials such as metal, hard plastic, and glass. Most frames are of a slimmer build and integrate a camera, in addition to a simple touch or click function to activate the software. The AI software for these glasses could be hardwired to perform a multitude of functions, however, the general options include the analysis of text, script, faces, environments, images, and colors. The audio operation for most glasses could be programmed to speak out loud or personally per the user’s preference in a plethora of languages. The most advanced glasses present over 60 languages available for selection.
The creation of these glasses has made daily life more unrestricted as individuals who were unable before are now capable to live independently and unaided by the commonly practiced walking cane. Examples of the ease this technology provide include the audible description of grocery store products, books, street signs and directions, in addition to legible handwritten text/script. A way of life that was not an option before the user friendly development of these glasses. Many users who have beta tested and bought a style of AI glasses, recount tales of the simple luxuries seeing able individuals take advantage of every day. A few examples of these luxuries are taking a stroll, grocery shopping alone, utilizing public transportation, and simply reading a book. Many companies around the world are in the process of testing, manufacturing, and producing newly developed AI Glasses, however, the leading brand to utilize this technology is Envision.
Evolution of Envision
Envision is a global organization that began in the Netherlands as an app for smartphone users. The co-founder, Karthik Mahadevan, started the company “from our desire to empower blind and visually impaired people with greater independence and access to the visual world.” The app launched on IOS and Android Smartphones in 2017 and had the capabilities of turning text to speech, scanning QR codes, describing the environment, and scan for people.
With the integration of AI beginning in 2018 (publicly), the AI assistant made it possible to transform what was once an average app, to a high tech composition that was named Best Accessibility App at the 2019 Google Play Awards and a Hall of Fame Award Winner by AppleVis. No longer was non human descriptions being presented for the user to dissect in confusion. Now with AI technology, descriptions have an intelligent compound that makes it easily user friendly. The combination of this system in addition to the smartphone app integration has produced a mobile revolution that changed the rose in the ranks when compared to the alternatives.
In 2020, the leaders of Envision publicized a press release to announce the partnership with Google Glass to create what is now known as Envision Glasses. These glasses work in tandem with the mobile app and provide identical functions to its partner app, however, a few enhanced features were added. These features include a real time function that works alongside the live video feed to provide continuous information for what the camera is viewing. Another newly introduced feature is the commands of “Read, Find, Identify and Call.” When these commands are spoken by the individual, the signal is triggered to direct the app to complete the objective. The glasses do not work with the smartphone software directly. Instead, the app should be downloaded for full usage as a partner to the glasses. The app downloaded on multiple phones is the connection point and provides the ability to video and voice call other app users through the interface.
Disruption To The Arts World
With everyday that passes providing new opportunities to enhance and adapt the product, the integration to the arts sector becomes a more tangible possibility. Gone are the days when visually impaired individuals need to be assisted to view an art gallery. Special shows and dates no longer need to be made and adapted for this exclusive audience. Helping hands are not required when the need arises to paint, sculpt, create, dance, or practice any form of art. These guiding allies are instead invited in response to comfort level of the user engaging with the Envision Glasses instead of out of requirement.
The only point of contention that should be mentioned is the average price of these glasses. Envision Glasses’ current price is 3,268.91 (including taxes) euros which translate to $3,620.15. This is the standard rate for all AI Glasses circulation currently. While there are financing options available, this price makes it difficult for the average American to purchase a pair, especially when these glasses are considered technology instead of a need, and as a result, insurance will not cover them. This price also makes it difficult for organizations to pay for them in bulk and distribute them to individuals for the run of the show. Envision states that they are working on ways to make their glasses more affordable while keeping their integrity, however, this time will not come soon and will slow the introduction of this type of glasses to the artistic world.
Disruption to Theatre
The technology of AI Glasses has not yet made its introduction to the world of theatre as of yet. However, let’s explore the prospective opportunities that this technology generates.
The first is inclusion under normalcy instead of unique instances:
Many theaters hold similar core values and inclusion ranks amongst the top of nearly all lists. Most theaters, generally of the non-profit sector, are constantly revising their strategies to discover improved and modern ways to better serve their communities. The visually impaired members of society are a type of audience that requires alternative formalities to take place in order to enjoy the highly visual art form of theatre. Provisions such as separate show dates, assistance in describing tech aspects and what are considered visual cues, and time allocated to touch the sets have become apparent. However, these are still not widely practiced, except for a select number of theaters, due to a lack of time and resources. The introduction of these AI Glasses allows for Visionally impaired users to purchase a ticket on any performance of the production run, and experience the art at the moment with the rest of the audience.
The second is the exploration of visionally impaired performers:
It is with no uncertainty that I state that visually impaired actors deserve their credit due as we watched these individuals begin to command the stage in the previous decade. Through various outreach and communities efforts, visually impaired artists have taken the stage alongside seeing artists, as well as leading entire productions for the blind on their own. Broadway is on the list of a multitude of theaters avidly seeking productions to promote the presence of visually impaired actors as they began to release public casting calls in 2017. However, the process of preparing productions with the specification of this cast could be considered one that required those elements some theaters can not afford: time and resources.
With the into of this technology, those resources could be contained in a more widely manageable manner. The specific Envision Glasses contain the appearance of “normal” glasses from an audience’s perception. As a result, explaining their presence will not be required for audience understanding. This leaves the floor open to visually impaired audiences to utilize and then commandeer the stage. Longer rehearsals, touch sessions, and a more robust description will no longer be needed to factor in as the AI assisted glasses will take care of it all. These unassisted artists will be able to work on their craft respectfully and independently.
The world of theatre is forever changing. A statement I made at the beginning of this article that continues to ring true. With every advancement in technology, new possibilities occur. The introduction of AI Glasses has caused a ripple effect in the lives of individuals impaired visually. The mission to independence and inclusion has become more tangible to undertake for the community it is actively affecting as well as the society as we learn how to navigate a world with new rules. The same could be said for theatre organizations as they contemplate diversifying their audience and performers, new ways to complete their mission/vision/value statements, and discover redefined ways to tell the stories of life.
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