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Shirt helps deaf and hard-of-hearing people enjoy opera 

What's New? | December 11, 2023 | By:

The Lyric Opera of Chicago now offers the SoundShirt by wearables designer CuteCircuit for its deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons to better experience opera. Photo: CuteCircuit.

Opera is everything all at once: music and drama, poetry and dance, grandeur and intimacy, spectacle and sound. But for audience members who are deaf or hard of hearing, or who are blind or have low vision, attending an opera can be a frustrating experience. 

A pilot program at the Lyric Opera of Chicago is trying on a new approach for deaf and hard-of-hearing people to experience opera with the SoundShirt. This jacket-like garment is equipped with 16 haptic actuators that transmit sound from the orchestra and stage into pulses, vibrations and other forms of haptic feedback in the shirt itself. 

The SoundShirt differs from most accessibility technology, providing a mediated experience of the music that registers as physical and personal. Brad Dunn spearheaded the SoundShirt initiative at the Lyric, and he is the company’s senior director of digital initiatives. “It doesn’t re-create the experience of listening to music,” Dunn says. “It’s its own thing. It translates the music into a different sensory experience that can be felt by people. And what I’ve seen through all of the early testing that we did is that audiences who are deaf or hard-of-hearing have responded very viscerally to it.” 

Lyric’s SoundShirt project was launched in partnership with the city of Chicago’s Mayor’s Office for People With Disabilities (MOPD), but the garment itself was designed by CuteCircuit, a London-based wearable technology design firm. On the CuteCircuit website, a SoundShirt retails for about $1,900, making the Lyric’s free program accessible in more ways than one. At the Lyric, an array of microphones positioned over various sections of the orchestra feeds audio information to a central computer, adapting the software to respond to the specific instrumentation of a given piece. 

Those audio signals are divided across seven channels, each mapped to one of 16 different “zones” on the SoundShirt, where motifs and melodies register as patterns and pulses across the garment’s 16 actuators. Through a back-and-forth with testers, Dunn and his team have been experimenting with settings, tweaking parameters and trying to meaningfully map music to the body. 

Rachel Arfa is a longtime disability advocate and civil rights attorney who serves as commissioner of MOPD. As a deaf person who wears bilateral cochlear implants, the issue of accessibility has been close to her heart for a long time. “When Lyric approached me with this shirt, I was highly skeptical,” Arfa said via email. “There are often technical solutions designed by people without disabilities for people with disabilities that do not solve barriers that we have.” 

Intrigued enough, Arfa agreed to test the SoundShirt at a recent Lyric production of “West Side Story.” Arfa was surprised to find the shirt actually felt like a good fit for the problem it is trying to solve. “At live theater, it is difficult for me to discriminate between different sounds, so I rely on access provided for equal access,” she says. 

“I began to understand that the haptics on the SoundShirt vibrated in conjunction with the orchestra sounds. One example is when string instruments were played, the haptics followed the pitch and rhythm. A second example is when a singer was singing a long melody, the haptics picked up on this and I could experience this through the vibration. I am not able to hear this sound, but I could feel it. It was such a surprise and a thrill.” 

In addition to accommodations for mobility disabilities such as ramps and wheelchair seating, like many opera houses, the Lyric offers performances with American Sign Language interpretation, projected subtitles, and assisted listening devices for deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons. For blind people and those with low vision, the Lyric provides Braille and large-print programs, audio-described performances, high-powered glasses and pre-performance “touch tours,” allowing audience members to feel various props, costumes and surfaces before the curtain rises. 

The SoundShirt will be available at the Lyric’s performances of Rossini’s “Cinderella” on Jan. 21 and Terence Blanchard’s “Champion” on Jan. 31 and Feb. 3. The Lyric has 10 SoundShirts, with plans to increase that to 15. 

Source: The Washington Post

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