Technology / 01.14.20
The GalaPro App Is Being Seen and Heard on Broadway and Beyond
Whenever someone laments to you that things in the world aren’t getting better, they’re getting worse, you might want to mention to them all the great technology we now have. Everything from the internet to robot vacuum cleaners to streaming entertainment. There’s also a little thing called GalaPro. This free app, which delivers live transcription and audio descriptions to smartphone devices, is bringing the magic of theatre and other events to a broad array of patrons who have missed out for years.
GalaPro CEO Yonat Burlin calls the app the most “interesting, challenging and rewarding” thing she has ever done in her career. “A venue providing GalaPro makes every show inclusive to a wide range of needs: people with hearing or vision disabilities; people with language barriers; and, in many cases, people who just want to better understand the show. A venue that is inclusive sells more tickets and provides better service,” she says. “The other benefit for offering GalaPro is that the venue doesn’t need to manage any special equipment. The users are self-sufficient and set it up on their own phone. So, venues sell more tickets and save money.”
One of GalaPro’s biggest advocates is Kyle Wright, Digital Projects Director for Shubert Ticketing, a division of The Shubert Organization. Shubert currently owns 17 Broadway theatres. “All of our Broadway shows use GalaPro at every performance a month after opening from every seat,” he says. “The biggest benefit is it enables us to be compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Before GalaPro, the only option was proprietary hardware that was expensive and difficult to have enough of. The second benefit is that it uses these supercomputers we have in our pockets — our smartphones — so we can provide a smart solution for as many patrons who want to use it or need to use it.”
He continues, “The third benefit is language translations. About 1.2 million people a year come to our theatres from non-English speaking countries. The app helps us provide a richer experience for those patrons who may not fully understand all or any of the dialogue that’s happening on stage. So, we’re seeing an impact on our global sales framework and how we bring in tourists and group leaders from such places as South Korea, Japan, mainland China, Europe, Brazil or any of those countries that send many tourists to Broadway.”
Another big supporter has been Wendy Oglesby, Marketing Vice President for Blumenthal Performing Arts in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her venue uses GalaPro whenever a touring Broadway show that supports the technology comes to town. “More and more are doing that, and we are thrilled to have this option available to enhance the experience for our guests,” she says. “While we continue to do a signed performance for all Broadway engagements, GalaPro is available at all performances and is accessible from all seat locations. We also have noticed that guests who simply want to ensure they don’t miss a word of song or dialogue will use this technology.”
The beginnings of GalaPro date back to 2015. For Burlin, the nearly five-year journey has certainly been both a rewarding and challenging one. “GalaPro has become a reality through many little steps,” she says. “Each step was a huge breakthrough. It was a huge step once venues realized that offering GalaPro on a mobile phone is okay and that it doesn’t disturb anyone. Venues reaching out to us because someone told them about us is very rewarding. But the most rewarding part is when users share with us how we have changed their life and how they can now just enjoy a show like everyone else. This is why we do what we do.”
And the challenges? “In many cases,” Burlin says, “venues offering GalaPro don’t always advertise it to their patrons sufficiently, and it isn’t always easy to get the word out to everyone in need. We want to make sure that when GalaPro is offered, the whole community knows it is there and benefits from it.”
Getting the word out hasn’t been as much of a challenge for Shubert. “With GalaPro, we were really hands-on with the product development side for the nine months we worked with them prior to launch,” Wright says. “We really brought them into the fold. As part of that project, we pulled together an advisory committee of folks who were representative of the communities we were hoping to serve.” These included executive directors from the Hearing Loss Association of America, the American Council of the Blind, the American Foundation for the Blind, the National Association of the Deaf and others.
“We now meet with them quarterly and have them test improvements in our theatres so that we make sure the product is being developed is actually representative of what the needs of the community are,” he says. “So, we’re not doing this for the community without them.”
Things that came out of this testing period is that each phone using the GalaPro app has to be in Airplane mode, it must connect to a local area network with outside Wi-Fi and it uses vocal recognition to trigger the captions that have been professionally prepared.
The use of professionally prepared captions has been a game-changer. Voice to text has proven to not be fast enough to create an experience where people are experiencing a play or musical in the same time as everyone. Voice to text, as is used with things like Alexa and Siri, also doesn’t capture nonverbal sounds that are important to a story like door slams, sirens, gunshots and so forth. The captions can depict such sounds. It’s a big component of the GalaPro program. The artificial intelligence learns by listening. The GalaPro computer backstage is plugged into each show’s master sound mix, and it learns based on that.
“It’s actually hearing what’s coming out of the microphones,” Wright says. “We wanted to make sure the captions people were experiencing the shows in as real time as possible so that audience members didn’t laugh too soon or too late and they were able to fully experience the story with people sitting around them at the same time. That’s really what makes live entertainment, in my opinion, powerful. You’re sitting with people from different backgrounds and experiencing a story together and hopefully having your hearts and minds changed in the process. So, it’s important that it’s a synchronous and simultaneous process across all audience members to the extent that we’re able.”
Across Broadway, the various venues had previously only had scheduled captioned performances and some intermittent sign language performances. When Shubert implemented GalaPro two years ago, the Broadway League trade association subsequently made a policy across the board to the 40-plus total Broadway theatres that they would all provide on-demand closed captioning and audio descriptions at every performance beginning four weeks after opening from that point on. “Not everyone uses GalaPro,” Wright says. “But GalaPro is, by far, one of the largest technology providers used to provide this cross-Broadway commitment to accessibility for people with low vision or hearing loss.”
In the end, it’s all about delivering the best event experience possible to the most amount of people. Burlin, Wright and Oglesby all have heartwarming stories to tell of people who have come up to them after using GalaPro and thanked them profusely for the difference it made. “We have had users tell us that theater is their favorite activity and they haven’t gone for 20 years because it isn’t accessible,” Burlin says. “Families with a non-native speaker that can now go together and enjoy. Then there are those people with hearing loss, who won’t wear a headset or admit to their hearing loss, but they will use GalaPro. For us, it isn’t about one story but about collectively changing what the standards should be for inclusion in the industry and in general.”
GalaPro will be providing captioning in all sessions throughout INTIX’s annual conference in New York City this month. In addition, Mai Yamada, GalaPro’s head of sales and operations, will be presenting on Wednesday, Jan. 22, at 2:40 p.m. in Rhinelander Gallery North at the Hilton Midtown NYC
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Tags: Accessibility , Theater , Broadway , Leadership , INTIX 2020