TechMatters: Deaf people can ‘feel’ live music with CuteCircuit’s Sound Shirt

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CuteCircut's award winning Sound Shirt helps deaf people experience the thrill of live music.
Image: CuteCircuit

TechMatters is a semi-regular column exploring the intersection between tech and our lives, why it matters, and how it’s helping to improve our quality and vitality of life. 

Here, we will profile new startups and products that have a vested interest in the betterment of life on a physical, emotional, and humanitarian level.

Game-changing medical wearables are making life easier for people all over the world in many ways.

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From a button-style sensor that clips onto clothing to help prevent Alzheimer’s patients from wandering to a smart glasses service that connects sight-impaired users to an “Explorer” who gives them instant visual information, smart devices are making life-saving impacts for the people who wear them.

Now, CuteCircuit aims to help deaf people “feel” live music with its groundbreaking Sound Shirt. Wearing the garment allows someone who is unable to hear music to experience a live concert in a new, immersive way.

How Sound Shirt Works

CuteCircuit launched the Sound Shirt as a special project in 2016. The London-based fashion label has been testing the product for the past three years.

Sound Shirt slips on like a jacket. First, the innovative piece of clothing connects with software that converts live music into data. Then, it wirelessly transmits the information to 16 microactuators that are embedded inside the fabric.

As musicians play instruments, the actuators vibrate in sync with the intensity of the music. Consequently, wearers can “feel” tactile sensations on their skin.

For instance, the wearer feels a delicate instrument, like the violin, in their arms. Heavier sounds, like bass notes, vibrate close to the stomach. Drum sensations register on the back, and so on.

“We mapped intuitively how we thought the music would map to the body,” said CuteCircuit CEO Ryan Genz in a DOGONews report.

Furthermore, a series of “touch-like” sensations across the wearer’s torso allows him/her to “feel” the music as a complete composition. Ultimately, the collective sensations deliver a fully immersive musical experience.

In a YouTube video of an orchestral performance, a test audience of deaf people wearing the smart shirt is surprised, smiling, and enjoying the concert. Given their overall positive reactions, it seems reasonable that a person with hearing impairment could also use the shirt to enhance dancing.

Wireless Comfort Meets Thoughtful Design

Due to its wireless technology, the fashionable medical wearable device is comfortable. Designers crafted the Sound Shirt with smart, stretchy, conductive textiles woven into the fabric.

“There are no wires inside, so we’re only using smart fabrics – we have a combination of microelectronics [and] very thin and flexible, and conductive fabrics,” Francesca Rosella, co-founder, and chief creative officer of CuteCircuit told DOGONews. “All these little electronic motors are connected with these conductive fabrics so that the garment is soft and stretchable.”

Besides ensuring comfort, the forward-thinking fashion brand made sure that the cutting-edge shirt’s design reflected its purpose. According to the company’s website, “The visual design is a metaphor for the relationship between vibrations and sound waves modulating in different frequencies.“

Furthermore, the cool blue connecting lines that form a pattern on the shirt “Serve as a tacit diagram of the underlying data network, stretchable micro-electronic circuitry, and 3D printed details, present within the garment and otherwise invisible.”

Overall, the system controls the collective function of the different actuators in the shirt.

Other Connected Fashion Endeavors

Francesca Rosella and Ryan Genz co-founded CuteCircuit in 2004. Over the past 15 years, the company has built a one-of-a-kind futuristic fashion line. The pioneering firm leverages advanced technology and smart fabrics to make “connected” clothing items that have “magical interactive capabilities.”

For example, high-profile celebrities have worn CuteCircuit fashions, including pop superstar Katy Perry, who has worn multiple designs. Most notably, Perry wore the company’s gown on the Met Gala red carpet in 2010.

Former Pussycat Dolls member Nicole Scherzinger also wore an interactive concert dress that displayed tweets from her fans.

CuteCircuit’s innovative fashion line features all sorts of interactive clothing and accessories—including handbags with aerospace aluminum frames and LEDs that produce animations and display tweets.

Noteworthy Recognition

CuteCircuit has garnered plenty of recognition since it entered the fashion landscape. The company’s gorgeous, tech-savvy garments have hung in museums around the world.

In 2018, the startup earned Fast Company’s Innovation by Design Awards for the Sound Shirt. The game-changing wearable received honors in three categories: Experimental, Fashion and Beauty, and Social Good. Most recently, the shirt won the 2019 UNESCO Netexplo Innovation Award in Paris.

Of all the company’s achievements, the life-changing experience that CuteCircuit’s Sound Shirt can give members of the deaf community is arguably priceless. The fashion brand expects that the public will be able to buy the Sound Shirt soon. However, the company has not yet announced a timetable for its widespread release.