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14 December 2023

Chicago’s Lyric Opera is furthering accessibility with the introduction of the SoundShirt, a garment developed by London-based wearable tech brand CuteCircuit. Priced at $1,900, the shirt aims to provide a unique immersive experience patrons who are deaf and hard of hearing. Audience members can reserve the SoundShirt for $20 during special performances.

Worn like a lightweight jacket, the SoundShirt features 16 small motors strategically placed throughout. Microphones around the orchestra record specific instruments, sending a live signal to activate vibrations in the shoulders, forearms, and upper and lower back. While opinions on the tactile sensation vary, with one reviewer likening it to a “hive of non-stinging bees,” the technology signifies a remarkable stride in inclusive design for the arts.

Originally discovered by Brad Dunn, the Lyric’s senior director of digital initiatives, during a trip to London in February 2020, the SoundShirt made its debut in October, making the Lyric Opera the first in the world to offer this technology to its audience. Despite some skepticism, users, including Rachel Arfa, commissioner of Chicago’s Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, have lauded the shirt’s ability to enhance their experience.

Those opting to use the shirts will have designated seats with views of both the conductor and the Lyric’s sign language interpreter. Tina Childress, an audiologist and accessibility advocate, commends the variety of accessibility services available, expressing excitement about the tactile feedback offered by the SoundShirt. This innovative approach demonstrates the opera’s dedication to making the arts more accessible, offering a glimpse into the evolving landscape of inclusive design in cultural experiences.

For more information, read Smithsonian Magazine’s article on the SoundShirt.