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At Some Venues, iPads Take The Place Of Opera Glasses


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath.

Every day, it seems that more places are invaded by mobile devices. But the concert hall- surely that's the one place where it's completely unacceptable to pull out that iPhone, right? Well, no. Some concert venues have actually opened the door to mobile devices. On Friday night, at the open-air concert hall Wolf Trap in Virginia, a whole section was set up as a wireless hotspot during the performance of the opera, "Carmen." It was the first large-scale test of a new technology to deliver subtitles to the audience. I went along, iPad in hand. And for most of the first half, I couldn't get the subtitles to work. Greg and Judy Hamel (ph) had two iPhones and two iPads between them. And they didn't do any better.

GREG HAMEL: Well, numbers don't matter 'cause it's not working very well, even with the multiple devices. It's in and out, unreliable. So I guess we're a little disappointed.

RATH: Kim Witman is the director of the Wolf Trap Opera. And when she stopped by our studio, I asked her to explain the larger aim of bringing new technology into the concert hall.

KIM WITMAN: I think the larger aim, especially from the standpoint of those of us in the classical music industry, is to find a way to give texture and context to the things that we do so that it feels a bit more integrated into 21st century life, and the kinds of tools and techniques that people are using in the rest of their lives.

RATH: I read that you had experimented with Google Glass. Was that one of the things that inspired you to try this?

WITMAN: Yes. All of this was the outcome of brainstorming that we had that was sort of precipitated by that technology and other technologies. I received an invitation to become an explorer. So I did get a pair of Glass and the ideas just started flowing from there.

RATH: Now at the performance on Friday night, things were a little bit buggy. The signal would go out, and sometimes it wasn't quite synced up. What went wrong?

WITMAN: Well, I just received the text back - the tech report right now. And, actually, we were a bit of a victim of our own success. We didn't think we'd have almost 500 users, but we did. There were challenges, of course, in knowing which frequencies they were going to use and which band they were going to be on. There's a lot of other Wi-Fi happening there at the park. And we had assessed all of that, and sort of knew what our sweet spot was. But the amount of usage pushed us a little beyond that. So we actually had to go down for about 10 minutes, and then come back up and continue.

RATH: Now I should say that the people that I - there were people that I talked to who were most excited about it. And those are the people using the Google Glass because they did have the same cut outs that those of us who were using the Wi-Fi devices did, but there was something about being able to watch the opera, not take their attention off the stage the whole time and have the titles there that was really great.

WITMAN: And that was the inspiration behind the whole thing. Of course, we wanted to expand the footprint a little bit and make it available as an experiment to other users, hence the mobile device integration. But really, Glass is the beginning of a technological development that will really make supertitles much less clunky and easier to integrate.

RATH: Now a lot of people would say that, well, this is going to be disruptive. All those little screens glowing - it's going to take away from my experience enjoying the show.

WITMAN: Well, we did - one thing going into that because we had the same question, the same concern. But the thing was - I was astonished. I was, I mean, 11:00 at night. It was completely dark out there on the lawn. And I actually went up to the Loge and looked down over. And because this format uses white text on a black screen, there's almost no screen bleed. So as you look down on the completely dark audience, I expected to see a lot of glow, and there just simply wasn't any.

RATH: Yeah, I couldn't see much. And I have to say, I was more apt to be bothered by, you know, people opening their bottles too loudly or talking to the person next to them than the screens.

WITMAN: Yeah. Actually, yes.

RATH: I've heard of people wanting to use this technology in other ways beyond subtitles - things like feeding out information about what's going on in the stage or even being able to show close-ups of soloists on the devices. What do you think of those sort of approaches?

WITMAN: I think the intention behind all of those kinds of things is a good one and strong one and the instinct is good. As with any new venture, you have to figure out how to use this so that the technology doesn't become the endpoint, but that it becomes a tool for something that is enhancing the main experience which is, of course, the really powerful experience that you have with the music and the theater. So yes, there are a lot of things that we're going to try. Some of them we're going to find out, probably, the distraction level might not be worth the added content. But I do think we have to experiment with this. And I think it's a very healthy thing that we are.

RATH: Kim Witman is the director of the Wolf Trap Opera. Kim, thank you.

WITMAN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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