London-based label CuteCircuit is considered a pioneer of smart fashion and with their SoundShirt they are defining the future of clothing.

Nadine Kaminski

Courtesy CuteCircuit

1 September, 2020

Inventing fashion that really improves our lives – the guiding principle of the London tech-fashion label CuteCircuit is as simple as it is groundbreaking. The latest stroke of genius by the creative heads of CuteCircuit, Francesca Rosella and Ryan Genz, is the SoundShirt—a soft, ultra-lightweight top that uses woven-in micro-technology and specially developed software to make music feel as vibration and haptics on the body. Francesca and Ryan developed the first version for the Junge Symphoniker Orchestra Hamburg.

“Four years ago, employees of the orchestra contacted us. They had the idea of using one of our inventions, the HugShirt, to make their music accessible to hearing-impaired people,” says Francesca. 

The pair had developed shirt in 2001 as part of a graduate program at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea in Italy. It became the initial spark for the founding of their joint company and has been continuously developed ever since. The idea and the product are still considered brilliant today and have won numerous awards – a shirt designed to fit the body and made of conductive material simulates a personalised hug—now controllable via app.

The SoundShirt is the further development of this idea, explains Francesca. "At a concert it works like this. Directional microphones pick up each instrument individually, the sound is digitised and transferred to our software. The special thing is that we have connected different areas of the shirt with different parts of the orchestra. You can feel the strings on your arms, from the first violin on the shoulder to the cello on the forearm. Right and left in the waist you can feel the woodwinds, drums and brass on your back and in the middle of your body." 

A unique experience for deaf people—as well as for a conventional audience – one experiences the compositions and the sense of community of a live concert in an undreamt-of intensity. Encouraged by the enthusiastic feedback of the very first users, CuteCircuit has been able to make the experience even more complex, using 30 Actuation Areas instead of the original 16, with three types of micro motors within the individual areas providing different amplitudes of intensity.

"All our designs are wireless. We want them to feel like fashion, not gadgets." The tiny processors, batteries and conductive loops are so slim and flexible that they can be embedded seamlessly into the surrounding conductive smart fabric. Ryan, a graduate cultural anthropologist, web and interface designer, came up with the design himself after countless fruitless attempts to get what they wanted from suppliers. The result was the first heart-shaped, wafer-thin specimen that can be admired today in the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. "Hence our name," explains Francesca.

A highly specialised high-end product is now gradually becoming a piece of smart fashion for everyone. On the website of CuteCircuit you can pre-order the SoundShirt – the development of a new control app is in full swing. There will be a music player integrated into the app – you choose a song from your own music library, then the algorithm of the CuteCircuit software reads the data of the track, analyses it, splits it into single frequencies and distributes it to the different areas of the shirt. You can even watch the algorithm work via visualisation interface. The result is a multidimensional hearing and feeling experience just like the original software in the concert hall – even though the music comes from the smartphone. 

Francesca and Ryan expect the app to be available in the next few months. "The shirts are already in high demand on the gaming and e-sports scene," says Ryan.

But before its fame with SoundShirt, CuteCircuit was constantly in the media with its Smart Fashion on an Haute-Couture level. Its designs are exhibited in design and technology museums around the globe, and there has also been a design collaboration with Chanel. In addition, the company has created highly acclaimed commissioned works for world stars such as Katy Perry and U2. 

"U2 approached us because they were looking for a way to involve an audience of 60,000 people right up to the last row in the concert experience. So we designed illuminable jackets and then animated the woven-in micro-LEDs in relation to the animated stage set. In one situation it looked like the musicians were beamed onto the stage from a huge conical screen. From the crowd came one big wow," recalls Francesca, who watched the moment backstage. 

The designers use different technologies and smart fabrics. But their favorite tool, their signature approach so to speak, is working with micro-LEDs. "We've developed a special LED fabric—we call it Magic Fabric," explains Ryan. "This fabric can be used to create any color, any movement, any shape. It turns our clothes into portable canvases. Our micro-LEDs are paper-thin. They are laminated into the fabric, which remains flexible and soft. The technology for this is patented by us. It's a whole new way to incorporate micro-technology into clothing.”

Smart fashion and the fashion of the future also has the capacity to be sustainable in unique ways. Francesca: "It will no longer be about mass consumption, but about ever higher quality and ever more possibilities. People will no longer produce and/or buy a new garment, but software updates with new animations and designs. We already give a lifetime guarantee on our clothing. Because we know – it can always be repaired, recycled or updated."