This Shirt Enables the Deaf to Feel Music

The SoundShirt transforms musical sounds into touch-like sensations.

Posted Jan 16, 2020

 CuteCircuit
Source: CuteCircuit

The SoundShirt, created by fashion tech company CuteCircuit, converts music into touch so that it can be fully experienced by the deaf. Thirty sensors woven into the fabric of the garment translate musical sounds into touch-like sensations on the wearer’s back, sides, shoulders, and arms.

“In this way,” write the developers at CuteCircuit, “the violins can be felt on the arms and the drums on the back creating a fully immersive feeling for a deaf audience member....Essentially the entire composition comes to life as a language composed of a series of haptic (touch-like) sensations across the torso of the person wearing the shirt.”

Watch the SoundShirt in action at a concert of the Junge Symphoniker Hamburg:

Many deaf people already enjoy music, of course. Most have at least some residual hearing and can hear music when it’s played at a high volume. Others appreciate the vibrations they can feel when they stand near a speaker or lay their hands on a musical instrument. At live events, some deaf attendees hold balloons or beach balls that thrum with the sounds of the band.

Enough deaf fans attend music festivals that sign-language interpreters like Amber Galloway Gallego, Holly Maniatty, and Lindsay Rothschild-Cross have made names for themselves in the U.S. as concert translators. Deaf-run organization Deaf Rave has been hosting club nights for the deaf community in the U.K. since 2003.

This video of interpreter Lindsay Rothschild-Cross signing along to metal band Lamb of God went viral thanks to her visceral, energetic performance:

For more than 170 years, educators have advocated for music instruction for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. In an 1848 article, “Music Among the Deaf and Dumb,” American teachers William Wolcott Turner and David Ely Bartlett argued that students with hearing loss should be given opportunities to enjoy and create music.

Today we know that music activates the same areas in the brain of a deaf person as it does in the brain of a hearing person. For a deaf person, the strains of music stimulate not only the part of the brain that normally processes vibrations, but also the part that normally processes sound.

According to Dean Shibata of the University of Washington, who conducted an MRI study on the subject, this research shows the value of exposing deaf children to music early in life so that the “music centers” in their brains have the input they need to fully develop. “In someone who is deaf, the young brain takes advantage of valuable real estate in the brain by processing vibrations in the part of the brain that would otherwise be used to process sound,” Shibata says. “These findings suggest that the experience deaf people have when ‘feeling’ music is similar to the experience other people have when hearing music.”

The drawback, though, is that it's impossible to experience the full range of musical tones without the sense of hearing: The human ear can distinguish vibrations with frequencies between 20 and 20,000 Hz. The skin, on the other hand, can only detect frequencies up to 2,000 Hz—deeper sounds, like the bass line of a pop song.

In recent years, new technologies have been used to enhance the sensations people with hearing loss feel at live music events

A rock concert specifically for the deaf was staged in Toronto in 2009. The audience sat in Emoti-Chairs developed at Ryerson University that transformed the sounds into movements, vibrations, and even puffs of air on the face.

In 2016, 7-Up sponsored a dance concert for the deaf by DJ Martin Garrix that featured pulsating platforms, walls lined with humming speakers, and screens showing visual representations of the music:

The SoundShirt also gives deaf music lovers more sophisticated vibrational sensations to enjoy than they would be able to feel under normal circumstances. This technology is particularly exciting because a shirt is portable, discreet, and can be used by a single deaf person in a room full of hearing audience members. 

CuteCircuit was awarded the 2019 UNESCO Netexplo Innovation Award for inventing the device, an honour previously bestowed on Jack Dorsey for Twitter and on the collaboration platform Slack. Currently, the shirt is available only to orchestras, museums, and video game developers, but CuteCircuit promises that a consumer version is on the way. Until then, if you’re in London, you can stop by their headquarters and try one out for $20.