Labs for Fashionable Technology

Sabine Seymour and Piem Wirtz discuss the field of wearable technology. The talk took place on May 20th at the V2_lab.

Labs for Fashionable Technology

Piem Wirtz, Sabine Seymour

Sabine Seymour is the author of Fashionable Technology (2008), an overview of innovative wearable technologies. She set up the Moondial laboratory to develop fashionable wearables and smart clothing. She visited V2_ in May 2009 for the Test_Lab Fashionable Technology, where she presented her current research. Piem Wirtz, project manager at V2_, grabbed the opportunity to discuss the field of wearables, and exchange views with her. This text is an edited version summarizing the quite informal talk.

Before the microphone was turned on, Sabine Seymour started explaining that most of 2009 she had been busy with setting up a new studio space in New York. This studio, actually a studio, gallery and office space,  developed fast, and she told she had now eight people working in her team, plus some interns from all over the world: Helsinki, Vienna, London, Amsterdam and Istanbul. At the same time she worked on a new book.

Piem Wirtz
: The new book that you are writing now is about the history of wearable technology and how it will be evolving in the near future?

Sabine Seymour: Partly, yes. I will put it together over the summer. I have so much material, and there are various things I am interested in: wearables in fashion, wearables in space-technology, and the emergence of space-couture. Space couture happened in the sixties. I will go on to 1995. Before 1995 we had the Steve Mann type of wearables, made from an engineer-technology perspective by computer science people. In 1995 Maggie Orth made her Firefly dress. I use that as a watershed, a delineator. It starts a new generation, the first wave of true wearables. In 2010 we need to have a second wave, which is the wave of well designed, well executed fashionable wearables that have the ability to convey a story through for instance an artistic installation – so they are highly valuable for collectors. It could be anything from a garment, to jewelry, pouches or bags, to a bodily experience, it could even be a tattoo. There is so much more to wearable technology than what we see now in stores. There are many more opportunities for accessories. Actually we are now able to create products that can be appreciated by an array of people, not only in a museum setting, not just in the inner circle, but a broader audience. Wearables are what an mp3-player was years ago, and it is going to be what an ipod is now. It’s going to be ubiquitous. We are coming into an age where fashionable wearables, and wearable computing per se, will become ubiquitous, in any aspect of life, in sports, health care, lifestyle and communication. There are so many aspects of life where this would fit in. But there are also many issues we need to deal with before we can make fashionable technologies as ubiquitous as an mp3-player, a cellphone. Because it is on our body, it is everywhere and it is there all the time. Hopefully it will use materials that are considered to be healthy for the body. So there are many issues, and that is why I think it is becoming very interesting. So that is what the book is going to be about. Actually I don't like the word wearables, that is why I use the term fashionable technology as the industry description.

: What struck me at the Smart Fabrics Conference in Rome, was the large number of research business perspectives. All these researchers stated that everything was basically there, but they were all waiting for the killer application to make it happen. There were not many artists present, but the marketing people all loved the art projects. There seems to be an opportunity to merge those two approaches, the artistic and the business perspective, and design the next level of fashionable technologies. I found that very exciting, and it made me wonder what a lab like V2_ could contribute to it. At V2_ there is knowledge and manpower. What do you think could the contribution of a lab like that of V2_ be?

SS: Such a lab is definitely an archive of materials and a playground for experimentation. It plays less a role in creating an actual product. It is important for creating expertise, for bringing five to seven persons together to 'manufacture' a final piece – because one person on its own cannot realise it.You can make a final piece; it is about knowing what type of expertise you need. At V2_ wearables are a main topic. That's important. And then you go from there. Sustainability is on everybody's mind now. It has been on ours since a long time too. Sustainability is very important, and also the modularity of what we develop, the recycleability. How can we harvest energy to keep all these things running without building up another plant? A long time ago I had a student who wanted to create sustainable throwaway underwear for traveling, underwear that you could just flush down a toilet. Take that idea and you could have five or six people researching full-time and working on it. I am sure that at the end it will be a marketable product. I can see it happen. A lab is really in between experimenting and bringing it to the market.

PW: This means that the importance of a lab is in exploring new materials, experimenting, and afterwards you see what someone else is going to do with that?

SS: You can do the same with artistic projects, as it is a very diverse field: it is about the collaboration between technology and art.

PW: The good thing about a lab is that you can both work at the material level, design smart fabrics, and work on the integration between the fabric and the technology, making sure the batteries, the circuitry and the boards work. You can be working on those two levels, the art-side and the technological side.

SS: It is very important to understand that we do not need all the electronics every time in an interactive garment. That is also where the science comes into play. I am started to be more an more interested in the scientific side of things.

PW: You mean the nano-molecular stuff?

SS: The nano-level too, yes, but that is even taking it one step further. I am also simply interested in the macro-level. The reactions on materials through bodily movements, bodily heat and environmental inputs. These are very simple aspects and that have not been explored well yet, not in a product and also not artistically. We need to explore these typical one way streets, these simple things. This is about smart fabrics, of course, but mostly on a material, textile level. Some of what I would call scientific fashionable bodily sculptures does not necessarily need technology at all. At least not the digital technology that we are talking about.

PW: That is also a discussion that we have at the V2_lab: what is exactly wearable technology? Are we only referring to projects that use computation, that use digital technology, or is it a much broader field? The question for us is: what do we focus on? Most of the time we are aware of the fact that the concept is the most important thing, and that what comes first is the issue of how to combine and use technologies in order to convey the concept in the best way. But even then, there is always the lingering question if we should focus completely on the concept, or should we, by experimenting with technology, also allow the concept to change. By using certain technologies and through experimentation, new ideas develop, that could force the concept to be changed around too. In that sense I think the collaboration between technology and art is very valuable: it is about exploration from two perspectives and see how this can bring a project further.

: I think that the exploration is sometimes much more valuable and more beautiful and also much more rewarding for someone who is new to this area, than a haphazard garment put together by someone who does not understand fashion or jewelry design or accessory design. Show your concept!

PW: Making it look good is then the next level. What is your idea about the DIY approach? There is a lot going on in that field, it is a growing community and also those activities could bring wearable technology to a next level. There are so many people working on it.

SS: The DIY community is great for exploration, great for learning purposes, but it has its limitations. To me DIY is like very good ladies who had their knitting circles. Yet the high end knitting is done at Dupont Labs at Wilmington.

: I have the impression that the people who are now in the DIY scene, like the participants in our workshop, are very high skilled. They were for instance programmers who really liked to sew and were trying to bring those worlds together, they were more than just crafters who like to do something.

: Well with the knitting circles I also mean people who really knew their craft.

PW: So the difference is only in the fact of not having access to the big machines that can do round knitting and all kinds of complex techniques?

SS: Right. The people working for Hussein Chalayan, that is craft. But again to bring it up to a level where it can reach a mass market that is something else, and that is the difference I meant.

PW: "And the hi-tech material you can hardly create at your own kitchen table because you need a biology lab, or a hi-tech knitting machine to create fine enough patterns?

SS: Exactly. In our studio we are working with materials that are not even available yet. We can work with them because we have business relationships, we sign NDA's (non disclosure agreements). There is put a lot of money into it in order to be able to work with material that is not yet available, and there is always a limit. I am an open innovation person and I think that the whole patent thing is weaning a lot, but at the same time patents are important for those who create new technologies and theories and it is important to acknowledge them. A patent, a trademark, seems to be the only way we have at this moment to put a stamp on something. DIY does not reach that level. But it is a fantastic tool to get a lot of people involved. The MAKE-magazine thing that started about three years ago is done by people from the consumer good companies. Look at NIKE-plus for instance, that brought the touch pads and smart clothing to the consumer market, to people that previously did not know anything about wearables. So DIY is also bringing the fashionable technologies to a much larger community.

PW: Why is your studio booming at this point? Is it because of all the relations you have built up?

SS: There are many reasons I think. It is because of the expertise I have gained over the last decade and it's the ability to understand the market. I am working towards 2010 and up, I left everything else behind me. I am using it as a wonderful playground, as test bed. Then of course it is the contacts to the industry. I am getting a lot of calls from companies asking me what shall we do next? Which is great. Sometimes I also think: why did you not ask me five years ago? It is definitely also the book that put a stamp on me as the person with the knowledge, covering the whole field. And it is the impact of all my lecturing, my involvement in so many institutions. Last but not least, we are a band, my people and me. That metaphor really captures how we are working. Everybody is working hard, finds it cool and believes in what we are doing. We put a lot of effort into making it work. It is a combination of all these things. It is thanks to the trust of the clients, the trust of the people that finance us, and thanks to the expertise and the excitement of the 'band'. I don't like the word team. I like the metaphor of the 'band'. Everybody is playing their 'instrument' really fantastically. Jamming together is making the whole thing just so much better.

Fashionable Technology (book): www.fashionabletechnology.org/
Moondial (studio): www.moondial.com/

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