Why Wearable Technology Inspires Us
Third E-Textile Workspace, January 21 2010, focused on the question of why we make wearables.
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 and consumption…
The question of wearing wearables
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 society
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?
Inevitably a 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 looked into.
- Piem Wirtz
- Melissa Coleman
- Marina Toeters
- Anja Hertenberger
- Meg Grant
- Ivana Hilj
- Dorith Sjardijn
- Stoffel Kuenen
- Silvia Piantini
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/