Sound Shirt: A New Way to Experience an Orchestra

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For many years, inventors have been thinking up ways to make music more accessible to the Deaf community. Now, a new garment may be the key to conveying the power of a symphony to those who aren’t able to hear it.

CuteCircuit, a London-based company that makes wearable technology, is working with Germany’s Junge Symphoniker Hamburg Orchestra on a connected garment that will allow deaf and hard-of-hearing people to experience the different instruments in an orchestra through vibrations.

The Sound Shirt concept is built on the foundation of an existing CuteCircuit product called Hug Shirt, a Bluetooth-connected shirt with embedded sensors and actuators that respond to a trigger sent from the mobile app (in the case of the Hug Shirt, one person initiates a “hug” from their mobile device and the recipient’s shirt generates haptic feedback and warmth to simulate a hug from the other person.).

The Sound Shirt incorporates much of the same circuitry as the Hug Shirt, but with eight different regions corresponding to instruments in the orchestra. Microphones are placed within the different sections (one for violins, one for percussion, and so on) and the sound waves are translated into vibrations by 16 micro-actuators embedded in the shirt.

According to CuteCircuit CEO Ryan Genz, the experience of wearing a Sound Shirt is visceral and intuitive because the sounds of the orchestra reverberate up and down the length of the shirt, corresponding with the bass and treble parts of the music. The wearer is able to see which sections of the orchestra are active while the music resonates through their shirt, and soon learns to associate a particular vibration with the corresponding activity from the orchestra.

“We mapped the body as a reflection of the musical changes. The bass notes down, in lower parts of the torso, and the lighter notes, further up on the body, around the neck area. While the wearer of the Sound shirt is listening to the orchestra, certain areas on the garment become more active than others.”

The Sound Shirt isn’t the first project aimed at helping deaf people to experience music, nor will it be the last. Back in 2013, a freelance musician named Andy Pidcock worked with the National Orchestra of Wales to build a “sound box” that allowed people to feel the vibrations from a particular instrument by putting their hands on the box. Like the Sound Shirt, Pidcock’s sound box relies on mics are close to specific instruments, so that people can feel that instrument resonate through the box.

The Sound Shirt is unique in a few ways, though – it gives people a way to passively experience the dynamics of an orchestra as a member of the audience, without needing to place their hands on a box. The Sound Shirt also makes it possible for wearers to feel multiple instruments at once, getting a sense of how the whole orchestra works together to create music instead of just one section.

Sound Shirts are not currently available for purchase by the public, but Junge Symphoniker Hamburg allows people to register for upcoming concerts (they’re currently out of available slots, but a form on their website allows you to sign up for an email notification when registration opens up again). Though we’re still a way off from gadgets like the Sound Shirt being widely available and useful for a variety of live events, it’s encouraging to see the many ways people are harnessing technology to make our world more accessible.