Follow all Workspace results at the E-Textile Workspace collection.
The E-Textile Workspace of January 21 was organized around the subject
of "why wearables?." The session was opened with a welcoming of two visitors,
Silvia and Stoffel, who both came from the university of Florence to do a stage
and/or visit the Lab and the E-Textile Workspace. The schedule for the evening
consisted of a discussion, a materials exploration and time to work on and
discuss the participants’ own projects. The chosen material of the evening was
Shape Memory Alloy, better known as muscle wire or Nitinol, or by one of it’s
brandnames such as Flexinol or Stabinol. From earlier sessions it had become
clear that the material is a huge favorite among the participants although few
had worked with it.
The evening was started with a discussion of the topic with the
following questions as its point of departure:
- What should we (as art society) accomplish with wearables?
- What motivates us to make wearables?
- What excites us about the medium?
- What is it good at and where does it fail?
- How can wearables benefit society at large?
Bringing electronic textiles to the manufacturers
As far as up-close-and-personal technology goes the most successful
technology today is mobile technology. So what will be the killer app for a
textile based technology? Obviously it is not here yet, but once a profitable
wearable has made it’s way to the general public, then the manufacturing of
conductive fabrics will no longer be a niche market. What will convince
manufacturers to jump into the gap? It seems that there are still discoveries
to be made in the best way to fuse technology and fabrics but apparently few
factories are willing to do the groundwork for this when there is not yet a
promise of certain revenue. Is it up to European manufacturers to specialize
and innovate so that they can distinguish themselves from mass-producing
textile countries such as China? The only manufacturer taking up this challenge
and simultaneously bringing it to the consumer market is currently PlugAndWear.
The question was raised if maybe PlugAndWear would be able to create a fabric
with Shape Memory Alloy as the SMA-fabric made by Grado Zero Espace is not
within the budget of students and most artists.
Perhaps textile research labs could also play a part in the development
of electronic fabrics? The process of the creation of Media Vintage (made at
V2_ Lab) was discussed where the embroidery of the touch sensitive tapestry was
executed at the Textile Lab in Tilburg. The problem that constantly arose
during the development of that piece, and thereby hampering the process, was
that the thread was not suitable for the embroidery machine. This type of
problem will often arise when using new conductive materials on machines meant
for regular threads. One participant pointed out that the recently developed
conductive thread by Sparkfun has less of those problems and can be used in
knitting and embroidery machines. So perhaps it’s just a question of time
before thread, fabric and e-textile application are ready for mass production
The question of
So should companies
be interested in wearables? Is there a consumer market for electronic textile
products? Most applications that are being developed are aimed at medicine and
sports. Both markets have the human body at their core and are therefore the
first to benefit from and pick up on the advantages of textile electronics. But
is it also interesting for fashion for instance? Would you wear wearables? One
participant pointed out that she gladly would once she had gotten used to the
small annoyances that come with a new technology. She used the mobile phone as
an example of a technology that definitely has had its social awkward moments
but that seems to have settled in our culture. We will continue to develop
wearables and once products become production ready we will likely wear
wearables, and as for the question of why: perhaps just because we can. The
technology is out there.
The effect on
So what would a
textile-technologically enabled society look like? The central themes that
wearables raise are the questions of controlling and making decisions about personal
space, the bringing of the virtual into reality and the physicalizing of our
media. The different views on this subject made it clear that the technology
could go two ways. One participant foresaw a dystopia where emotional displays
on clothing would alter an atmosphere in a group so that the most negative
feeling would spread and take over the mood of a group. Anja, who created
E-pressed, sees wearables as enablers of a utopian world where we would take
our bodies more seriously, could interface our emotions and easily signal
others when we are stressed and in need of care. Stoffel talked about his
master’s research, the results of which supported Anja’s view. In his project
Stoffel used the heartbeat and galvanic skin response to measure if someone was
positively or negatively stressed. This bio information was fed back to the
participants through vibrations so that they would be aware of their emotional
state. Although participants were initially scared of the system and annoyed by
it, they reported that the system disappeared into the background when they started
using it. It turned out that the system was an effective derivative of the
participant’s emotional state. They performed a double blind test where they
let people do teambuilding exercises. Preliminary research indicated that teambuilding
goes much quicker with biofeedback because people notice how their system
reacts to others.
So how will
wearables find their way to the public?
An obvious first
big seller would perhaps be developed for the sex industry, which is notorious
for picking up new technology and giving one product a competitive edge over
another (allegedly how that’s how VHS won over Betamax). And perhaps there is a
future for wearables in a continent with a growing need of medical care for the
elderly? We could use bio information and telecommunications to outsource our
care to countries where labor is cheap. Or let a cough be analyzed by a
machine. Another application would be in fabrics that don’t get dirty. One
participant has already seen a presentation of a fabric that worked like a
lotus flower where dirt just rolls off.
Will our future
cross the boundary of the skin?
discussion of wearable technology leads to the vision of a future in which we
not just wear our technology, but actually physically become our technology.
One participant called it a logical development. The rule of product design has
been that technology has become smaller and smaller and eventually it will be
so small to easily move beyond our skin. We can be scared of that idea but
already small invisible things communicate from our bodies and affect our daily
life. Hormones and pheromones strongly influence our interactions. We people
are nodes in a network and should stop being individuals. “If we chip our
animals, why not to our children” someone joked.
Lastly the question: why do you make wearables?
Among the various
responses from the participants were:
New fibers and new
inks are exciting, it is a very accessible medium because you can make things
without needing industrial machines, to extend the human body by copying nature
(bio mimicry), the desire to modernize textiles, to make beautiful
applications, to create a new impulse for the textiles industry, just because
electronics have their own aesthetics, for the love of interaction and
dynamics, the Frankensteinian primal emotion of wanting to create a kind of
life, to make things that are new, to push against the limits of known culture,
because of an interest in personal space and private space, for the love of
clothing and fabrics, because with wearables you can be different from other
people (the possibility of personalization and expressiveness when you wear the
same outfit), to extend the senses, because fashion is an interesting medium,
the pigheadedness in wanting to work with big companies, because it empowers,
to program things that you can see and touch, because it’s fun, because it’s a
super ancient female craft together with modern technology - a so-called
typical male skill, and surprisingly the most common one: because I like it as
an art medium and merging clothes and electronics just made a lot of sense
because of various things that came together in life.
The exploration of Shape Memory Alloy
The material Nitinol -a combination
of nickel and titanium- is a favorite among the participants of the Workspace
because of the potential of creating movement in fabrics without needing to
incorporate bulky motors. Only a few participants actually worked with the
material so Melissa prepared a demo to show how to electronically activate the
material. In the demo a transistor was used after the output to be able to
trigger a current that an Arduino cannot provide on its output. Although
electricity is used for the demo, it is actually the (resistive) heat that the
material responds to. A blow dryer could also be used effectively, but
obviously this limits the possibilities for interaction. For the fabric in the
video Melissa used a wire with a thickness of 0.015mm that has been trained
into a spring shape. Crimping beads were used to attach the SMA wire to the
electronic wire, as the SMA wire cannot be soldered. The wire has only a subtle
effect on most fabrics because it is not very strong. A thicker wire –needing
more power- would be able to create a larger effect. Possibilities for
different ways of sewing the wire and training the wire oneself are being
Links and references shared by the participants
Oricalco fabric: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_oGQz-eSIOQ
SMA webshop: http://www.flexmet.be/shape-memory-shop/