A Tactile Symphony for the Deaf
Music is one of the hardest things to make accessible to deaf people, but that’s not stopped the people at CuteCircuit trying. And they have come up with the Sound Shirt.
The Sound Shirt 2.0 is a garment featuring 30 actuators that express physical movements in the fabric of the shirt. These actuators are linked to the Orchestra via microphones and a sound processor. Each microphone is linked to a specific part of the orchestra such as horns or violins and these are mapped to specific areas of the shirt.
“The deeper, heavier bass notes [activate the actuators] down in lower parts of torso, and the lighter sections, like violin and lighter notes, further up on the body, around the neck area and clavicle. As they’re watching the orchestra, they can see certain areas are more active than others; they feel sound waves in specific areas of the body, and within a few minutes understand there is a correlation.” – CuteCircuit CEO Ryan Gentz
The sentence in that quote is particularly interesting. The deaf person wearing the Sound Shirt watches the orchestra and feels the sensations. They will come to relate the visual experience of the watching the musicians, instruments and conductor with the physical sensations they are feeling. It would be amazing if this could be set up for rock concerts and other music events where there may already be a sign language interpreter for the singer.
I imagine that doing the same for prerecorded music is going to be very tricky. The sound shirt seems to rely on having a dedicated recording of each instrument in the Orchestra to map physically. But on prerecorded music, every instrument and voice will be mixed together. Access to the studio masters will provide access to microphoned recordings of each instrument and voice. And for years music visualisers have long provided sound responsive graphics for the music being played on your computer. The Sound Shirt software may even take on the task itself.
CuteCircuit has a long history in the area of tech clothing; mixing data, electronics, exotic materials and high fashion for years. The Sound Shirt seems to be the first item they have created with a primarily practical focus foremost in mind.
The technology they have created is remarkable in what it does and what it can do. The Sound Shirt is the logical next step in artificial reality and computer gaming. But it is very expensive, with development kits cost £3000. I imagine each unit almost hand made. But if it expands into the wider world then the economics of mass production will hopefully make the Sund Shirt affordable to people on the street.
In the meantime, they have a Sound Shirt experience available on their website for £15. You can visit their offices, hang out and try it on for yourself.