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Tech community tackles theater captions app

Solutions from 'hackathon' could draw worldwide interest
 Posted: 2:00 AM May 03, 2014

Imagine sitting in a theater and reading William Shakespeare's words on a smartphone or tablet as the actors speak their lines.

Such an innovation could help the deaf and hearing impaired, or bring captioned lines in other languages to non-English speakers. Students could read notes to explain obscure Elizabethan terms or to help them understand insider Shakespeare jokes.

The Rogue Valley high-tech community is joining forces to devise new ways to bring captions to theater audiences — a volunteer effort that could attract worldwide attention.

Benevolent hackers

To the average person, a hacker is someone with malicious intent who tries to steal sensitive information or carry out an act of high-tech sabotage.

But John Lee, president and chief executive officer of Folium Partners, said the word hack refers to a clever bit of code that a software engineer puts together to solve a problem. A hackathon is a positive endeavor in which the team agrees to work on a project to have fun, learn a new topic or do something good for the community or society, he said.

"This hackathon is definitely for the social and community good. It's coding for the common good," Lee said of the effort to create a theater-caption app.

Software writers and other experts will meet today to begin organizing a "hackathon" to tackle theater captions. The effort to solve myriad problems associated with on-screen captions will continue through the summer.

Southern Oregon University has agreed to test any new caption technology, said David Humphrey, director of the SOU Center for the Arts.

A hackathon is an event in which high tech experts gather to solve a problem or come up with a new innovation.

During the Rogue Valley's first hackathon in 2011, a dozen experts created an app that took advantage of iPhone motion detectors to help people learn to juggle, said John Lee, president and chief executive officer of Folium Partners, an Ashland-based company that creates book-related apps.

With the proliferation of handheld electronic devices, local high tech experts began talking about the future of theater captions and decided to tackle that topic this year, Lee said.

"Audiences are accustomed to using mobile devices for personal information. They've become familiar with how to access information," he said. "We want to build on habits people have learned with mobile devices."

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival offers captions for certain performances. Red, glowing words are displayed on low reader boards on the side of the stage.

Lee said OSF hasn't signed up to use any prototype that emerges from the hackathon, but the festival is interested in exploring possibilities.

A major issue to be solved is the glow from personal devices causing distractions in a darkened theater.

Lee said research has shown reading light text on a dark background — versus the usual dark text on white — increases reading speed and retention.

"We'll investigate using light text on a dark background. The text also doesn't need to be stark white," he said.

If people use their smartphones in a theater, incoming calls could disrupt performances as well — another challenge to be tackled during the hackathon.

"We need to find a way to limit people from taking phone calls on their personal devices," said James Walker, director of OSF's Information Technology Department.

Walker said captions on mobile devices wouldn't replace OSF's system of displaying lines on reader boards, but it could someday supplement what OSF offers.

"We want to engage the high tech community in seeing what we can do," he said. "The idea is to make the theater more accessible to more people. There are all kinds of cool new technologies we could be looking at and exploring. We're just experimenting to see what we can do."

Walker and Lee said technologies developed during the hackathon could someday benefit the worldwide theater community.

"It's a community effort in Southern Oregon," Walker said. "We're bringing the technology community together. Anything developed will be open-sourced to nonprofit theaters. We're showcasing our work to the rest of the world."

Lee noted, "It's a great way to put Ashland and Southern Oregon on the technology map so people around the world can see this amazing product that will be associated with Ashland forever."

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or Follow her at

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