This Outfit Can Help Deaf People Feel Music
The SoundShirt translates sound waves into vibrations on the skin, opening up the experience of music to the Deaf
In a London nightclub, under flashing lights, the twins Hermon and Heroda Berhane dance with a crowd of revelers. They are Deaf, and while they cannot hear the music, their clothing ripples and buzzes along with the sound.
“There are so many ways technology can include Deaf people and make our lives more inclusive and make us feel a part of society,” they tell me later in a cowritten email. They’re describing the experience of using a device called the SoundShirt, which was developed by the London-based fashion and technology company, CuteCircuit. “Music can lift you or a sad song can make you reflect, so to ‘feel the music’ was an emotional experience for us.”
Using actuators embedded into the fabric of the garment, the SoundShirt takes music and transforms it into a set of motorized vibrations. Different instruments are mapped across the torso and arms as haptic sensations, whirring and oscillating against the skin as a sort of tactile translation of sound. For a Deaf person, the SoundShirt’s designers claim, it is a way to truly “feel music.”
In CuteCircuit’s London office, amidst the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, I try it on. There are no flashing lights and no crowded dance floor in this high-rise of buffed wood and floor-to-ceiling windows, but there is a filmed recording of an orchestra playing Felix Mendelssohn’s concert overture, “The Hebrides.” As the strings bloom and the percussion thunders, my gut vibrates beneath a set of cylinders woven into the fabric. It gets close to capturing the sensation of your stomach dropping at a rousing crescendo, albeit at the command of carefully curated mechanisms.
I am not Deaf, and can both watch and listen to the recording of the orchestra as the SoundShirt does its work. Having at least one other stimuli is crucial to understanding what is happening. “For Deaf users, it’s quite important to see the action in order to map what they’re feeling to what instrument is creating that sensation,” says Ryan Genz, one of CuteCircuit’s co-founders. In this way, the brain is able to draw connections between what it is seeing…