Broadcasting theatre audio description #3: WiFi and MobileConnect

This is the final article in a series of three about the technologies used to broadcast theatre audio description (AD). The first was about infrared, and the second radio.

While Williams Sound have Hearing Hotspot and Listen Technologies have Audio Everywhere, the only WiFi system to have had an impact in UK theatre is MobileConnect from Sennheiser. In a relatively short time MobileConnect on its own has leapfrogged radio to put WiFi in the second spot after infrared for numbers of UK theatres using it to deliver AD. This article will therefore focus solely on MobileConnect.

With infrared and radio – conferencing, translation and tour guiding equipment has been repurposed quite effectively (but not perfectly) for theatre AD. But we’re clearly ‘making do’, as the tools have not been designed for the job. In WiFi, we finally have a system designed for delivering theatre access: assistance hearing the show and broadcasting AD: problems solved? Not exactly…

What is MobileConnect?

MobileConnect is made up of two elements: a base station that takes audio inputs and connects with routers to broadcast that audio via WiFi, and an app that when downloaded to a smart device enables you to receive and hear the audio broadcast over WiFi.

The main issues with infrared are that it is a line-of-sight system, often leading to areas where the signal cannot be received and requiring the use of stethoset receivers – which can be uncomfortable. Radio solves the line of sight issue, and enables belt-pack receivers to be used – taking the weight off people’s ears and enabling a wide range of headphones to be used. However, the radio receivers we focussed on indicate which of their 6 channels they are receiving in a visual display and place the channel changer in the middle of the volume wheel; meaning that very occasionally people accidentally change channel and have to dial through the 6 channels until they happen across the AD.

Does MobileConnect solve these issues? Like radio it does not require line of sight, and it does not use stethoset receivers. However, the reliability of the user’s connection to MobileConnect is in question, with reports of it regularly dropping out. Some AD audiences are familiar with touch screen devices, but some are not. Complications are caused by the combination of consumer technology and an app, creating variability and spreading responsibility between the user and the venue.

MobileConnect in practice

When MobileConnect first appeared, I thought that the base station was like a radio transmitter and you could simply input AD and it would broadcast it for you. Having waded through the 86-page user documentation, I now realise I was mistaken. MobileConnect is actually closer to infrared in that it requires a lot of carefully planned and implemented infrastructure. MobileConnect is also more of an information technology (IT) product than pro audio/traditional theatre technology, so venue technicians may find it unfamiliar.

WiFi channels need to be carefully planned. Within the limited bandwidth there will invariably exist the theatre’s own administrative WiFi , potentially a separate Cloud WiFi ; various show controls may be using WiFi channels and of course there may be encroachment from other nearby networks. The broadcast pattern and signal strength from the access points (routers) and their positioning in relation to the building also needs to be taken into consideration. One early adopter venue only had reception in the stalls as the building structure blocked the signal from reaching the circle, so reception was actually reduced compared with the much-maligned line-of-sight infrared system it had replaced. While wifi is not line of sight, physical obstacles decrease its range by about 50% (this obviously varies massively depending on the physical nature and scale of the obstacles).

MobileConnect has two basic operating modes – standalone and integrated. In standalone you link access points to the base station which are then used to operate MobileConnect. The first UK theatres installed with MobileConnect used standalone mode, and initially the maximum number of simultaneous users was 25. This worked quite well, but when the software was updated to allow 50 simultaneous users the system’s reliability seemed to diminish. Standalone mode was then preferred by the company installing MobileConnect, but I have since heard differing views on this.

Apparently smart devices, particularly iPhones, will disconnect from WiFi if they cannot connect to the internet using that WiFi signal. For smart devices the reason to connect to WiFi is to access the internet, so if WiFi does not supply a connection to the internet, they will disconnect and continue their hungry search for the internet. Some (but not all) Android smartphones have an option to accept networks as they are (i.e. without access to the internet). Most venues now use the integrated mode and link MobileConnect to their Cloud. The internet may enable smart devices to stay connected (I did recently sit in a venue with Connect in standalone mode and my Android phone without amended settings and the technician’s iPhone stayed connected for half an hour as we chatted) but the internet adds to battery drain as devices are constantly updating online.

Theatres provide The Cloud so that customers can make purchases from their seats. Unfortunately, in the fifteen minutes before a performance, AD users are often listening to the introductory notes describing the visual world of the show and checking that they have reception while front-of-house staff can still assist them. Because there are strict limits on the number of people able to access WiFi at any one time, this is exactly the period when customers who are blind or partially sighted using MobileConnect via The Cloud will have the worst reception and the signal is most likely to drop out. Access is competing with interval drinks orders. Depending on its set-up, MobileConnect stations generally offer a maximum of either 50 or 100 simultaneous users. When broadcasting via infrared and radio you are limited by the number of seats with good reception and the number of receivers available. Generally, more infrared or radio receivers can be hired. However, with WiFi there is an actual limit. If your limit is 50, and you have a very popular performance with 45 AD users and 10 other audience members using MobileConnect for assistance hearing the show – 5 people will be disappointed.

The operating mode and its connections to the access points can be managed through the base station and now via smartphone app, as demonstrated to me by the Chief Electrician of a West End theatre. Indeed, to simplify things for audience members he removes the AD channel for general performances and only makes it available, via the app on his phone, at AD performances. You can also create your own welcome message and manage up to four broadcast channels -whether they are stereo or mono – and name them. Automatic Gain Control (AGC) is available to ensure a consistent volume that does not get too high by reducing the dynamics of the audio – keeping it in the mid-range and flatter. Like the 2020 mains-powered transmitter, there is also an audio gate to try and stop extraneous noise being broadcast, but this can be adjusted to minimise the loss of first syllables. While the online manual makes no mention of further settings, following issues at the AD of a high-profile show, I got to work with a team of technicians as they adjusted the audio quality downwards and fixed channels rather than allowing them to switch to the clearest channel. These adjustments helped to minimise signal drop-out and a kind of aural pixellation. Otherwise to control the quality of the audio and the reliability of the signal it is all about what you input into the base station and the quality of your standalone or integrated WiFi network. There are different views about the system’s audio quality:  a theatre sound technician who works for VocalEyes describes it as ‘over-processed’ and ‘awful’, but some people like it, and while there is general agreement that it does not sound ’warm’, it can be very clear.

Having four channels available means one can be dedicated to show relay for hard-of-hearing customers and another channel to AD leaving two spare channels. Unlike infrared systems, you cannot mix two signals in a receiver, but you can mix AD and show relay as a channel in the base station– so the third channel could broadcast a mix of show and AD that users could select – effectively the same for the user as the infrared system. However, I have never been sure how many people actually use the mix option with infrared receivers. The chance that the levels of the ambient show, show relay and the audio description work together for an individual during the wide variations in sound levels during a show seems slim. In either system you would need to add in another layer in order to live mix the sound levels to make this more generally useful.

Bring Your Own Device

Someone representing the product told me that ‘people don’t want to be handed a piece of access equipment when they go to the theatre’. Some people definitely don’t, but several service users have told me that they don’t want to use their own phone; they do want to be handed a piece of equipment that works and be told how to use it. Unsurprisingly, there is no single view on this. Some people with smartphones are loath to use them: not wanting to use up all their battery because they rely on their phone to get home; reluctant to change settings on their phone in case  they don’t correctly restore them and miss urgent communications; others may be using specially-adapted Android phones from Synaptic, on which MobileConnect does not currently work; and some others just find that using their own phone and having to deal with the practicalities of its set-up stops them from losing themselves in a show. With infrared and radio, generally the venue controls both the means of broadcast and the receivers which they maintain and lend to customers to use. The paradigm shift with WiFi is that the venue controls the means of broadcast, but not necessarily the receivers. Sennheiser’s website explains:

Quickly amortized – Bring Your Own Device. Audiences and students use their own smartphones, so no additional hardware is necessary. MobileConnect requires neither maintenance nor operational costs, which means a lower Total Cost of Ownership and faster Return on Investment. Save yourself the effort for device handling, headphone hygiene or battery management.’

They are specifically selling it with the promise that venues will save money by not having to provide and maintain the receivers that make their shows accessible. That cost and work gets outsourced to audiences who buy smart devices, maintain them and ensure they are charged and have the latest version of the MobileConnect app. This may seem good in theory, but from my experience on many AD performances at MobileConnect venues since 2015 – it ain’t happening yet: typically the number of customers bringing their own device to an AD performance is one, or none.

Venues using infrared or radio just need to know how many people want a receiver and they have to be able to supply them. With MobileConnect, they need to know how many people want to use a receiver and how many are bringing their own. They also need to factor in the chance that someone who indicated they would bring their own device might drop it / lose it / have it stolen / run down the battery or discover their device won’t support the latest version of the app. Potentially customers bring their own headphones to either use with their own or the venue’s smart device – as discussed in the Radio article these may or may not bleed sound to other patrons.

Both venues and audiences have to be concerned about software updates. The software on the base station and that on the receiver device must match for the system to work. In-house iPods with a standalone base station should continue to work without updates. But if a customer then brings their own device with a more up-to-date version of the software – it will not work. I have been at a venue when it received iPods from another group venue, but the venue’s base station software was more up-to-date than the borrowed iPods – so they did not work. There was then a panic trying to find the password used by the other venue to unlock the iPods, get the right corporate iTunes password, and a suitable internet connection to update the software before show time. From my own experience, I thought I set the MobileConnect app on my Android phone to automatically update – and was puzzled when it stopped working with no error message to explain. Later, the version of Android running on my phone became too old to run the latest version of the app.

Over time, more people may bring their own devices. We have had a couple of AD performances specifically for young people, where everyone brought their own smart device and needed much less convincing to use it than had been the case with an infrared stethoset receiver. But while AD theatre attracts people from a wide age range, the bulk of the audience are not teenagers.

After years of theatres trying to get customers to switch their phones off so that they do not interrupt the performance and more recently so that they do not photograph or film performances – venues are now encouraging audiences to use their phones for access. Conspicuous use of a smartphone during a show may be queried by people not realising its purpose and may potentially lead to some awkward situations. Mistakes can also be made switching a device to aeroplane mode and then enabling the WiFi connection to MobileConnect – potentially causing interruptions during shows.

If you provide a means of broadcasting audio description, does your reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act include providing the means of receiving that broadcast? UK law is notoriously vague on detail in access provision. In the US the Americans with Disabilities Act is much more specific, giving the number of receivers that venues need, on a sliding scale of capacity. But because only a small percentage of customers are bringing and using their own smart devices in the UK – venues are still supplying some receivers. The default is that venues have 5 iPod touches, and these get sent between venues within the same theatre group to support AD performances. A new iPod touch costs £200 (so not vastly different from a radio or infrared receiver), but it is more generally useful outside of the theatre context, and I have heard reports of a few iPods going missing and more rigorous deposits being required by venues – slowing both the distribution of iPods and customer’s exits after the show.

iPod touch is the last iPod still available from Apple, and its 7th generation was just released at the end of May 2019 (thankfully retaining a headphone jack). Is there a chance it may be discontinued? Or upgraded in a way that makes it more costly or impractical for this purpose – such as the loss of the headphone socket and the need to use Airpods? If iPod touches are not available, and there is still a need to make some form of MobileConnect receiver available to audiences – what do you use? The iPad Mini is in its 5th generation released in March 2019, with its almost 8-inch screen is considerably larger to be grappling with in a theatre seat and double the price of an iPod touch. There are of course Android options, the Huawei Mediapad M3 can be bought for £180, but its screen is even larger at 8.4 inches and it runs Android 6.0 (Marshmallow) the last version that will work with the current MobileConnect app, so if you bought 5 of these – unless you can upgrade the operating system – at the next update to MobileConnect they may simply stop working .

Latency and variation

I first tried MobileConnect using an Android smartphone at one of the early adopter venues, and I thought it was dead on arrival. I felt infrared succeeded because it worked for hard-of-hearing customers. I am not Deaf or hard of hearing, but from my experience of listening to shows via MobileConnect I struggled to understand how it helps anyone to hear a show, because of the delay, or latency. Maybe if I could hardly hear the live show at all, it may have had enough volume to help. But if you can at least somewhat hear the show ambiently, you then hear it again a moment later, effectively blurring the sound and potentially making it more indistinct. At one trial of MobileConnect the audio describers urged us to mix show relay in with AD because they felt the clear but ‘metallic’ sound quality of their voices in MobileConnect would distance audience members from the live event. During the interval we had to stop the mix, because hearing the show live and delayed was driving our audience crazy. Dr Louise Fryer – who literally wrote the book on AD – has this to say regarding delay:

‘I’ve not experimented with MobileConnect but if there’s a delay I would say it’s unusable – you have to know as a describer that what you say will be heard instantaneously, otherwise you’re lost. And the risk of trampling on the dialogue makes it worse than useless – everybody loses.’

Certainly describers have said that they are more wary of making maximum use of the gaps in dialogue when broadcasting with Connect because they are aware of the variable delay.

Latency might be managed if it was predictable, but varies across devices devices. The delay tends to be shorter with iPhones, iPods and iPads than with Android phones and tablets. Sennheiser lists devices using Apple’s iOS 8.3-10 and high-end Android phones as having a delay of less than 80 milliseconds, and lower-range Android devices with a delay of 80-100 milliseconds. But other processing of the sound before it is put into the base station will increase latency. At a minimum the describer’s microphone will go through a sound mixer before the MobileConnect base station. It will also likely be processed through a pre-amp. Bluetooth headphones (as opposed to wired headphones) add a further delay. Each of these delays is tiny, but they add up to being noticeable, and the differing receivers create variation so the length of the latency cannot be relied upon.

The second key difference is volume: iPods give much lower maximum volumes. One of the early adopter venues has a long-running musical and significant sections of the show are so loud that you cannot hear the AD using an iPod supplied by the venue – but you can hear it with an iPhone or an Android smartphone.

All of these products have buttons in different places and the iPhone and Android operating systems are different and each have their own accessible modes that use different gestures to operate them.

Finally, battery size and speed of battery drain is going to vary massively. Watching this at one performance, an iPod’s battery was barely diminished whereas an iPhone 6 battery was almost completely depleted.

Front of house perspective

There is a West End venue where there are issues with infrared reception, and they also have MobileConnect installed – but we have never used it: not because of reception or connection or signal delay, but purely for practical reasons for front of house staff. The long-running show attracts around 35 blind or partially sighted people to every AD performance, and they are mostly different people each time. The staff time needed to teach people how to use the system makes this impractical, so we have started supplying radio equipment to supplement the infrared rather than using the already installed MobileConnect. The use of Infrared and radio receivers can generally be explained to theatre goers who are either blind or partially sighted very quickly, but this is not necessarily the case with MobileConnect.

Ironically for a bring your own device system, I have recently received complaints from customers who had actually downloaded the app, charged their smartphone and brought headphones to a show – only for venue staff to refuse/not be able to assist them to connect their device to MobileConnect, and instead insisted on supplying them with a venue iPod. Most likely this is an issue of staff training in positions that see regular turnover.

Many venues use iPods locked in the guided access mode. This significantly simplifies the operation of the iPod, and locks it to MobileConnect, so unless you break the passcode it would be pointless to steal  – although customers have seemingly gotten out of guided access to other apps purely by accident (the passcode used is often crackable with repetition).  In guided access, customers should be able to switch to the iPods accessible mode if they choose (FOH should be able to switch it back for their use if they know how to do this), and otherwise only have control over the volume.  This would seem ideal, as long as the iPod has been pre-set to the highest base volume to give the user the most “play” with the volume control they can access, and of course if it has been set to the right channel. The problem is that if the iPod loses connection to MobileConnect, the customer cannot re-connect themselves, and at some venues experience shows that you would expect to lose connection several times during a show. Indeed one venue told customers using MobileConnect to raise their hands anytime during shows so that a staff member could get their iPod and reconnect them. That venue has now switched to the radio system recommended in our earlier article.

The App has a demonstration mode, but if you are not locking the iPods in guided access mode so that customers may reconnect themselves, they need a more global explanation of how to use the device. Demonstration mode mainly focuses on Sennheiser’s innovative Personal Hearing Assistant feature – which is the way volume is controlled in guided access. Audio Describers who have assisted theatre staff with these tutorials say that they always teach customers how to operate the main volume control, but never find time to explain this secondary feature.

The app has been designed to work using both Android and Apple’s accessibility modes, so customers who use touchscreen devices in these modes will be able to use the app in the same way. Sighted theatre staff, however, are probably unfamiliar with these modes and the gesture controls needed, and may have difficulty demonstrating the app, or trouble-shooting if the customer has a problem.

Ideally, you need to have something broadcast during demonstrations to reassure people. That the device can play a pre-installed message does not indicate that it has successfully connected to MobileConnect and will receive the AD during the show.

What do service users think?

Because the opinions are so divergent, I have reproduced people’s views in full rather than weave them into the body of the article.  Please note that some people responded to a brief questionnaire while others chose to simply write their views.

Sound quality: Generally very good, however I have had some issues with how the Describers have positioned their mics as being digital there seems to be more pick up of background noise and if the app does not seem to have a good WiFi signal you get a similar effect to losing a skype or facetime video call with the audio dropping out.

Reliability of the signal: Signal seems to be great and have only had a couple of drop outs when listening to AD through MobileConnect.

Volume: I use MobileConnect on my iPhone with my wired ear pods plugged in and they have a volume control on the wire so easy to adjust the volume if needed during a performance. I have only tried the system at one musical and did not have any problems hearing the AD above the musical numbers.

Are the receivers easy or difficult to control and use? Is their use well explained by theatre staff? Due to using my own iPhone and not a venue’s iPod touch I have not had much experience of venue staff demonstrating how to use the MobileConnect App or to use a tablet or smartphone. So I can’t really comment on this, however, if venues are using their own devices such as iPod touches then staff do need to know how to work the device, the MobileConnect App and how to demonstrate this to a blind / partially sighted person who has not used a smartphone or tablet before.

Do you have a favourite broadcast system? If so, why?: Personally for ease of use for me I would say that the MobileConnect is my favourite although it does have some issues that do need to be ironed out.

The plus side for me is that I don’t have to rely on the venue’s headset or smartphone (iPod touch) which may have not been charged, have a dead battery, breakdown during the show. Generally I can sit anywhere in the venue to pick up the audio description and likewise before the show I am able to hear the live intro notes in the bar while I am still finishing a drink or waiting for my wife to arrive. So MobileConnect for me gives more flexibility and ability to use my own kit to listen to the description. There are some drawbacks with the system though that do need ironing out to make the system perfect!

Digital delay – not a critical one but there is a very, very slight delay with processing of the signal which is very noticeable if for whatever reason show relay gets mixed in with the audio description feed. Very annoying!

Some Describers have noted that they have to think a bit more about their timings as they have raised the concern about the delay making the description run into the dialogue. Not sure exactly how big an issue this might be but something to be aware of.

I have only had the occasional signal drop out and not totally sure why it happened.

I know there have been comments about sound quality of the MobileConnect system against the Infrared and yes maybe the MobileConnect might be slightly more bright and live compared with infrared. It’s a balancing act but I would go with MobileConnect above infrared and if any of the above issues could be smoothed out then it would be a perfect system.”

Toby Davey, former Deputy Director of VocalEyes and service user

’Sound quality is good. But if you do anything, like turn the volume up, it turns the screen on, and if you then touch something you can turn it off. Good in theory. Like that you can bring your own phone, but practically I don’t think I’ll ever like it. It requires a different style of audio describing because of the delay.’

Sound quality: MobileConnect is the best

Reliability of the signal: Not great. Dependent on consistent WiFi signal. Need to have someone sighted with you to help re-connect.

Volume: Even on full volume the volume is lower than infra-red.

Are the receivers easy or difficult to control and use? Is their use well explained by theatre staff? Worst of all the broadcast systems. I feel more confident, switching my phone off, and using a piece of equipment I’m given. ‘

Edward Copisarow, service user

’I haven’t used my own iPhone, but rather have been provided with a ‘smart device’ by the theatre. In general I found the sound quality, signal reliability and volume control relatively easy to manage, though I found it a bit of a nuisance to have to hold the ‘device’ in my hand during the performance, or retrieve it from a pocket if I wanted to, for instance, adjust the volume. Having used an Apple iPhone for the last two or three years, I’m a reasonably experienced ‘smart device’ user, and therefore the equipment provided by the venue was reasonably familiar to me. However, I’m not sure how well I would have coped had I not been fairly familiar with ‘smart’ devices. And despite the common (and false) assumption that ‘smart devices’ are now ubiquitous even among those who are visually impaired, many of the users of VocalEyes AD services will not be familiar with or have experience of ‘smart’ technologies. And as a general rule, the older the blind or partially sighted person, the less likely they are to be familiar and have experience of such devices. All of which makes the training of theatre staff, volunteers and visually impaired patrons in the use of these smart devices particularly important.’

John Thomas, service user

Sound quality: 5 out of 5 when it works it works well

Reliability of the signal: Varies from 2 to 5, I have used this system only once. The device did not seem to have option of voiceover. When I lost AD I did not know why as it had a touch screen, which was very sensitive to touch / movement.

Volume: 5 out of 5 (very good)

Comfort of the receiver: 5 out of 5 – I am certain with the right earphones the Audio Description will not be heard by other patrons.

Are the receivers easy or difficult to control and use? Is their use well explained by theatre staff? On the one occasion I did use this system the explanation was poor as I hadn’t been told that touching the screen could disable the audio description.

Do you have a favourite system? If so, why? I like the second design (radio) because it seems to be the most reliable form of audio description. The third (WiFi), however since it is digital it lacks reliability, although it is superior in terms of comfort. It would be great if patrons were given a choice of either system.

Kasia Kubaszek, service user

‘I have no experience whatsoever of the WiFi systems as I struggle with smart technology. The print is either too small or you can’t get enough info on the screen and I’ve never got on with talking technology.’

 

What do venue staff think?

’From our perspective MobileConnect provides a more consistent service than the infra-red system we used to use. As the service is available throughout the entire auditorium, customers with hearing impairments have much greater freedom when selecting their seat. The biggest obstacle we face with the system is educating customers in how to use it. Once you have used the system a couple of times I think it is straightforward but that first time, especially if you aren’t used to iPods and apps, can be a lot trickier to explain than the infrared system.’

Deputy Theatre Manager at a MobileConnect venue in London

‘Having used both infra-red and MobileConnect there are definite advantages to the WiFi system, the main one being that the user doesn’t have to maintain line of sight with the transmitter, this reduces the ‘hiss’ associated with Infra-Red. The WiFi system also offers a better audio quality. Our system is also integrated with The Cloud wifi service which means that users that do bring their own devices don’t have to switch networks to browse the internet in the interval or pre-show. MobileConnect also allows user to bring their own devices, this allows customers to easily use better headphones or Bluetooth hearing aids, it also allows those people that don’t want to have to ask for help to enjoy a better performance without the embarrassment of having to ask for help.

There is also a good web-based management software for MobileConnect which allows us to monitor the input levels we are sending to it, it is also possible to see how many users are connected and how many are listening to each channel. We use this information to ensure that users that have come for an Audio Described performance are listening to the describers before we start the show.

The one downside of MobileConnect is when we have an AD performance we are handing a touch screen device to a visually impaired person which then requires a friend or carer to help them stay on the right channel.

MobileConnect also allows up to 4 channels, we currently have the show audio, audio description, a test channel that users can use before the show to ensure they have it set up correctly and one for our second venue but this only works because it is incorporated with The Clouds WiFi network which is in both venues and audio links already existed.

At the time of replacing our infrared system I was really keen to move away from IR as I didn’t think it was a very good service that we were offering, however I didn’t get chance to look or listen to any of the Radio systems which is a shame as it would have been nice to have made a comparison.’

An electrician at a regional MobileConnect venue

‘So far without any major issues, there does seem to be a small lag in the sound reaching the user, but just a fraction of a second, (this can increase if using an iPhone against a iPod). The coverage of the connect is far better than the IR system as the IR needed line of sight between transmitter and receiver, but Connect working on WiFi , can easily cover the whole auditorium.’

Chief LX at a West End MobileConnect Venue

‘This seems like a solution to the idea of how to incorporate mobile phones into personal description delivery, designed by someone who is confident in using their mobile phone, and maybe doesn’t actually attend audio described shows. Whilst the system undoubtedly fits the needs of a museum or gallery or music gig that caters particularly to a younger audience, the requirement for the receiving device is not a natural fit to theatre and live performance. The sheer range of mobile phones means that on-site support is hard, even before considering the various aids that patrons have (larger text, narrator software) and setting up a phone to be in airplane mode and silent but still pick up WiFi means a greater chance of accidental interruption to a performance. It has its uses but with a high initial cost, the requirement for staff to interact more with patrons on a technical level and the need to still maintain headphones for patrons who don’t realise that they need to provide their means of listening to their phone without disturbing others mean that this technology still requires some work before mass adoption.’

An electrician at a major London venue that currently does not use MobileConnect

What does VocalEyes think about MobileConnect?

It is very difficult to sum-up. VocalEyes use 20+ freelance audio describers to deliver around 200 live theatre audio descriptions each year across the UK; these describers also work independently and are therefore involved in several hundred descriptions each year – many at MobileConnect venues. In preparing this article, I explained that I had received positive comments from both service users and venue technicians about MobileConnect, and I asked the audio describers if they had any positive comments. Deafening silence. Recently we delivered an AD for a one-person show. Because the show was very text-based and there was not a lot of physical action, the describers warned the audience members that the audio description would be sporadic. One customer’s iPod lost connection to MobileConnect early on, and because he had been warned that the description would be intermittent, it took him a long time to realise there was an issue. I found that in discussing this incident we fell back into thinking of MobileConnect as we would infrared or radio – that if after sound checking and getting people to check their receivers there was then an issue (other than a failed battery or the receiver being covered) that it would be a technical issue that could and should be dealt with by the describers and the technical team. Now theoretically this could be true, but it seems that almost always with MobileConnect – it is down to the customer to realise the problem, and for them, or a companion to try and re-connect. It may only be that one device that lost connection.

From a describer’s report from another recent show with the AD delivered by Connect:

‘There is a basic problem at this theatre that the signal keeps dropping out and the unit then has to be re-set – difficult when you can’t see the screen. This happened before the show, and I swapped my unit with the customer because he was not getting the introductory notes. We got into a complete tangle with three lots of headsets (he ended up using his own) and two units, and a poor lady between us who held things for me while we fiddled about. Eventually he got the signal and I had to squeeze out of the row, apologising to the many people I’d held up.

The signal also dropped out, halfway through the second act, and my device needed to be reset, but obviously I couldn’t check whether others were working.

There is the problem of trust. The customer had had a bad experience with MobileConnect at another venue, and ended up switching it off for the second half because the signal was so bad. Although he was understanding of this as a blip it then doesn’t bode well to be waiting for intro notes which don’t come because of another blip in another venue owned by the same company. It’s then difficult to relax and enjoy the show if you’re worried the signal may drop out again.’

We occasionally come across customers at venues with poorly-maintained infrared, asking in a worried manner at the box office, ‘will it work today?’ We don’t have statistics on the number of dropped signals during MobileConnect audio descriptions, and clearly it works very well sometimes. But trust is waning. We have had an anxious customer contacting us before they returned to another venue asking that a stethoset be supplied to them for the next audio description – because of the problems they experienced with MobileConnect. Another customer described ‘his ‘heart sinking’ as he was told the venue used MobileConnect – although he then experienced his first ever performance without a dropped signal.

When I re-contacted all the audio describers that work for VocalEyes and noted the lack of positive responses regarding MobileConnect, one responded that some audience members told her they liked being able to use their own headphones (also possible with radio). Another said: “I have used it at one venue with perfect results, when the big plus was using my own phone and headphones, which were light and comfortable, and again at another venue, with the theatre’s equipment. Equally comfortable and clear – the slight dropout during intro notes cleared for the AD. This is all determinedly positive because you know the rest. Reminds me of the old rhyme ‘when she was good she was very very good, but when she was bad she was horrid’.

The only time during my thirteen-year career at VocalEyes when an audio description had to be cancelled due to technical problems was at a MobileConnect venue, with cancellation confirmed approximately 1 hour before the touch tour – so most audience members were already on their way. The system just ‘fell over’. Horrid.

Somehow this has to be balanced with the positive comments from service users and venue staff recorded above. The Reliability of the connection is a major issue, partly because unlike relaying show sound to hard-of-hearing customers, AD is sporadic; without confidence in the system the user is constantly worrying that the signal might have dropped – and this takes them out of the theatrical experience.

One of our surveyed service users, Toby, picks MobileConnect as his favourite: ‘I would go with MobileConnect above infrared and if any of the above issues could be smoothed out then it would be a perfect system.’

But how to go about smoothing out issues? Sennheiser have control of the app and the base station. Apple and Google control the operating systems. Apple and tens of companies making Android devices control the receiver hardware. Another company makes the access points. Another company fits the system. The venue has some control over the settings. The user has control over the settings of their device. One theatre group’s IT department had to get involved because some security protocols were causing an issue with connecting to MobileConnect through their Cloud… Could all those companies working together solve all the issues…or ultimately is WiFi not a reliable way to broadcast, is signal drop out inevitable? To combat this could there be a way to automatically re-connect? Does some purpose-built hardware need to be made available? Perhaps lessons are already being learnt and things will improve?

As part of the extended process of writing this article, I did have the opportunity to talk with the MobileConnect product manager at Sennheiser and they are aware of the issues raised here. They are trying to tackle them in two different ways: first of all through more rigorous pre-sales, and if a venue’s WiFi infrastructure is not enterprise grade, they will not supply the system as it will not work reliably. Secondly they are continuing the develop the software.  The advantage of MobileConnect is that it can be updated without the need of purchasing new hardware. They continue to look at reducing the latency (delay) and making the connection more reliable. Unfortunately these two aims are sometimes contradictory, because latency is partly caused by “packet loss concealment” which aids the stability of the signal, and understandably stability is valued more highly than the small amount of latency added. In the venue management software they are looking to add information about the signal quality people are receiving, rather than just the number of devices connected and plan to increase the number of devices that can be connected at any one time to over 100. So Sennheiser are aware of the issues and are still actively working to improve the product.

Infrared and radio as currently packaged do not offer perfect systems for broadcasting theatre AD. I don’t think we can say that MobileConnect is currently better than its precursors for a general AD audience. At present the best way to use MobileConnect may be as an option working alongside infrared or radio – so that customers can make a choice.

Pros:

  • Empowerment and Comfort The app works with Apple and Android access software, customers can use their own smart phone or tablet, with their own headphones. Users don’t have to ask for a piece of access equipment, and it can be used relatively discreetly.
  • Not ‘line of sight’ so venues are more likely to achieve complete coverage (if properly planned and executed)
  • 4 Channels giving options. Show relay via permanently fitted microphones, AD, mix of show relay and AD and perhaps for musicals a show relay from the show’s sound mixer.

Cons:

  • Bring Your Own Device does not currently work (though this may change over time). Some people who use smartphones have been loath to bring their own. Venues are still having to provide receivers and headphones, ensuring the app is updated and the battery charged. The iPod touch has become the default receiver although its volume is often insufficient for the job. Should Apple cease production (as it did a few years ago with regular iPods) venues may have to come up with another default receiver.
  • Voiceover some feedback indicates the app is difficult to use in Apple’s accessible voiceover mode
  • Reliability The system is developing a reputation as unreliable among users (and audio describers), with users arriving at the theatre concerned as to whether it will work.
  • Latency/Delay This may lead to describers writing slightly less description for fear of crashing’ the dialogue. Does it work for hard of hearing customers?
  • Disempowerment Some customers have ended up leaving the operation of the iPod to a companion, leaving them feeling disempowered.
  • Using phones in shows The app’s screen is quite dark and is programmed to swiftly turn off – but it could be annoying to other patrons, who may be wondering whether use of a device is allowed during a show. Increased chance of phones disturbing the show.
  • FOH support Managing, demonstrating and supporting iPods and use of the app can be time consuming for venue staff
  • Locked down? iPods are often locked on MobileConnect, but customers on occasion have accidentally accessed other functions and not been able to find MobileConnect again.
  • Lost receivers One venue noted the relatively rapid loss of a couple of iPods. Infrared and radio equipment has no other purpose, and while they do break, they are rarely lost.

This is the final article in a series of three about the technologies used to broadcast theatre audio description, written by the VocalEyes Theatre Programme Manager Michael Kenyon. Add a comment below if you any questions, or contact Michael (michael@vocaleyes.co.uk) directly if you have any enquiries about theatre audio description.

 

 

 

 

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