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Deaf patrons feel opera productiions via haptic SoundShirt

Swatches | July 1, 2024 | By:

The SoundShirt software was refined at the Lyric Opera of Chicago during the 2022–23 season, which featured test audiences. This past season the theater made 10 shirts available for select performances of each opera. Increasing numbers of the shirts were used during each performance. Images: Lyric Opera of Chicago

Haptic feedback given through a light jacket invented by wearable tech fashion brand CuteCircuit has allowed deaf theater patrons at the Lyric Opera of Chicago to experience the performances in a whole new way.

The Lyric Opera made SoundShirts available for select performances during its 2023–24 season, including The Flying Dutchman and Cinderella, which also had audio description and/or American Sign Language interpretation. The pilot program was presented in partnership with the City of Chicago’s Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities (MOPD).

Rachel Arfa, the first deaf commissioner of MOPD, tested the technology the previous season as the software was refined at Lyric. “The SoundShirt gave me access to the sound of the performance in a way I have never experienced before, and it honestly made my experience at Lyric even more richly satisfying,” she says.

Up to eight microphones are linked to various parts of the stage or orchestra to transmit sound frequencies through a digital music capture system. Software connects the audio produced to 28 actuators embedded in the fabric of the shirt, such as low tones of percussion going to a person’s back and higher tones of strings or trumpets causing sensation in the arms, all in real time.

The woven fabric is OEKO-TEX® certified, and the shirts come with a lifetime warranty in case they need repair. They have heat-bonded construction and can be returned to the company for recycling.

The SoundShirt was conceived for use with a symphony orchestra, but it also could be used for an immersive video-gaming experience and interactive artwork installations. It was recently sported by fans at a U.K. soccer match, connecting them to the crowd noise.

CuteCircuit was founded in 2004 and holds a number of patents in wearable technology. Its designs also include clothing that changes color or is illuminated, including the Galaxy Dress, commissioned by the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, that is embroidered with 24,000 color LEDs. The SoundShirt debuted in 2016, derived from its HugShirt, which was developed in 2002. The SoundShirt has been winning awards since, including making the list of the 100 best inventions of 2020 by Time magazine.

The theater reported that the number of shirts used increased with every performance and it is expanding the mix of sizes for the next season.

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