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Wearable Computers, Electronic Textiles, and Reactive Fashion
By Joanna Berzowska
The "classic" (if that word can be used) definition of "wearable computers" refers to the act of wearing a computer on one's body. Cyborg pioneers such as Steve Mann [http://wearcam.org/steve.html] claim that personal computers are not sufficiently integrated into our personal, social, and cultural sense of self. They respond by incorporating them into their daily wardrobe, in order to allow ubiquitous access to computational power and universal connectivity. The computer is decomposed into individual components (such as the motherboard, batteries, and wireless card), which are repackaged and distributed around the body in pockets. Instead of a computer monitor, cyborgs use various kinds of head mounted displays [http://wearcam.org/head-mounted-displays.html] attached to hats, glasses, or straps. For input, they use unobtrusive input devices such as the Twiddler. [http://www.handykey.com]
Combined with personal wireless local area networks, communication tools, context sensing software, and other people, the wearable computer can act as an augmented reality "intelligent" personal assistant. For example, the Remembrance Agent [http://www.bradleyrhodes.com/Papers/remembrance.html] is a wearable proactive memory aid and data system that continually reminds the wearer of potentially relevant information based on the wearer's current physical and virtual context. The wearable computing vision implies that people in the future will wear personal computers in the same sense that we wear clothing, in order to facilitate context-dependent interactions [http://www.media.mit.edu/wearables/mithril/] with the world and the people in it.
It is ironic that these wearable computers are in fact not very wearable - at least not in the same sense that a cashmere sweater is wearable. The various components are made of hard plastic, metal, and silicon. They are heavy and angular. In order for the wearable computer to be more wearable, we need to be able to knit it onto the body and replace wires with conductive yarns. We need electronic textiles.
An electronic textile refers to a knit or woven substrate that incorporates capabilities for sensing, communication, and power transmission, as well as interconnection technology that allows sensors or processors to be networked together within a fabric. This usually involves the use of yarns that incorporate some amount of conductive material (such as strands of silver or stainless steel) to allow electricity to flow. Electronic textiles thereby allow little bits of computation to occur on the body.
This expanded definition of wearable computers allows for more diverse applications. On one hand, there are pragmatic applications such as military research into interactive camouflage. On the other hand, work is also being done by artists and designers in the area of reactive clothing - "second skins" that can adapt to the environment and to the individual. The fashion, health, and telecommunication industries are also pursuing clothing that can express aspects of people's personalities, needs, and desires, or augment social dynamics through the display of aggregate social information.
The genesis for much of the current electronic textiles and wearable computing work comes from defense research initiatives such as the Future Force Warrior program [http://www.natick.army.mil/soldier/WSIT] at the Natick Soldier Center in Massachusetts, and the MIT Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies. [http://web.mit.edu/isn/]
One important research direction involves interactive camouflage: uniforms that possess chameleon-like qualities and can change colour [www.sciencentral.com/articles/view.php3?article_id=218391833&language=english] when a soldier moves from a desert environment to an urban one. This exciting area of research will also lead to many applications for visually adaptive clothing that displays personal information, or changes according to mood, time of day, or other internal or external input.
A second research direction includes the development of integrated sensor arrays and various embedded sensing technologies for deployment in clothing, backpacks, tents, or vehicles. Sensing can be directed both outward and inward. Environmental sensing can detect enemies or potential biochemical threats: for example, a woven conductive fabric with embedded button-size microphones [www.wired.com/news/gizmos/0,1452,55764,00] could detect the sound of remote objects such as approaching vehicles. Or biofeedback devices could track a soldier's vital signs in order to enhance endurance and overall health.
Biofeedback, Universal Connectivity, and Privacy
According to a 2002 market study, [link no longer active http://www.vdc-corp.com/industrial/reports/02/br02-03.html] textile-based biomonitoring products are expected to reach the market for medical, safety, military, and sporting applications in the next two years.
Companies such as BodyMedia [www.bodymedia.com/index.jsp] and FitSense [www.fitsense.com] already offer wearable products to collect, store, process, and present physiological and lifestyle information, such as calories burned, personal activity levels, and sleep states. There are also textile-based products such as the Sensatex SmartShirt, [www.sensatex.com] originally developed for the U.S. Navy [www.darpa.mil/dso/success/smashirt.htm] to expedite diagnosis and medical treatment of wounded soldiers on the battlefield. The garment is capable of detecting the penetration of a projectile, monitoring the soldier's vital signs, and alerting medical triage units stationed near the battlefield. VivoMetrics [link no longer active www.vivometrics.com] similarly produces the LifeShirt vest, which features embedded electrodes for heart monitoring and three conductive bands that gauge the movement of the heart and lungs by measuring changes in their magnetic fields. A belt-mounted device records the data, and can send it to doctors who might notice dangerous patterns and adjust medications accordingly.
Other research involves medication compliance monitoring, biometric monitoring of young children and elderly patients, as well as the tracking of children or Alzheimer patients. Philips Smart Connections [www.design.philips.com/smartconnections/newnomads/index.html (link no longer active)] has developed a range of prototype garments where communication technology such as mobile phones and GPS devices are embedded into clothes. They study the potential of such technology to help protect children, enabling parents to pinpoint their location and to communicate with them. The garments also have a playful element: fabric antennas, radio tagging, and miniature remote cameras allow children to play games.
The loss of personal privacy implicit in such monitoring and tracking is often presented as a welcome necessity in these scenarios, and is indeed easier to accept when faced with the fear of losing one's children or the fear of threats to national security. Despite the promise of increased security and independence, electronic freedom activists find such a surrender of basic privacy disturbing, in particular when faced with the potential for abuse and misuse of these technologies.
While many of the Philips Smart Connections garments are in the prototype stage, a range of lifestyle jackets developed in collaboration with Levi Strauss has already been put on the market. These jackets feature electrical components such as a phone, mp3 player, microphone, and headphones. More recently, Burton Snowboards collaborated with Apple to introduce the Burton Amp [http://www.apple.com/pr/library/2003/jan/07burtonipod.html] smart ski and snowboard jacket. The sleeve of the jacket is augmented with pressure sensing technology from SOFTswitch [www.softswitch.co.uk/] to create a soft, flexible, fabric-based keypad that controls an integrated Apple iPod digital music player.
At the same time, conferences such as WearMe [http://conferences.iee.org/eurowearable/wearme.htm] and IEE Eurowearable [http://conferences.iee.org/eurowearable/] in the UK, UbiComp [http://www.ubicomp.org/ubicomp2003/] in the USA, or the e-culture fair [www.e-culturefair.nl/] in the Netherlands hold fashion shows to consider the aesthetic, technical, and social aspects of wearable, hand-held, and portable technologies. These fashion shows invite projects that are less functional and more fun, expressive, and poetic. For example, Elroy [http://acg.media.mit.edu/people/megan/elroy/] by Megan Galbraith is a dress that encodes time information through the visual arrangement and animation patterns of its electroluminescent panels. And Inside/Outside [www.kakirine.com/handbag] by Katherine Moriwaki is part of a body of research that focuses on the behavior of people in urban public space. Moriwaki's purses combine pollution sensors with an ordinary fashion accessory to provide an aesthetically and functionally integrated object.
Soft Computation and XS Labs
The tradition of electronics design and manufacturing is to produce hard components encased in boxes. The tradition of textiles is to produce soft structures that encase the human body. By merging the two, we can create soft circuits and develop new methods for electronics design, sensing the body, and transmitting power and data. I call this "soft computation": the design of digital and electronic technology that is composed of soft materials such as textiles and yarns, as well as predicated on traditional textile construction methods to create interactive physical designs.
Soft computation involves the use of conductive yarns and fabrics, "reactive" materials (basically, any material that can alter its appearance somehow - change colour or shape, light up, and so on), flexible sensors, and small microcontrollers and electronic components that enable the construction of circuits on soft substrates. It implies a move away from traditional electronics, and an exploration of emergent materials that can enable physical computation. The goal is to achieve the seamless integration of technology into the tradition of textile and fashion design.
Our research at XS Labs [www.xslabs.net/news.html] focuses on the development and design of electronic textiles, reactive materials, and squishy interfaces. We develop projects that focus on aesthetics, personal expression, and the idea of play, as opposed to the prevalent utilitarian focus of wearable technology design on universal connectivity and productivity applications. We are particularly concerned with the exploration of simple interactions that emphasize the natural expressive qualities of electronic circuits, and of the body.
We develop dynamic clothing that has the ability to change colour, shape, or texture over time, and reactive clothing that responds to different types of input with sound, animation, or some other state change. Materials such as thermochromic pigments, light-emitting components, miniature speakers, and conductive yarns are used together with input devices such as soft fabric switches, variable resistors, and capacitive sensors to construct the reactive garments. We think of clothing as a second skin that allows us to construct meaning in interaction with the world - one application of reactive fashion is to enable the idea of changing our skin, our identity, and our cultural context.
XS Projects: Experiments in Reactive Fashion
The SoundSleeves project [www.uttermatter.com/sleeev/] deploys the sleeve as a musical instrument. Moving the arms in different directions and touching/rubbing them together creates subtle sounds that emanate from the end of the sleeves. The electronic circuit in the sleeves is constructed of metallic silk organza (for contact switches and grounding elements). Simple sewing techniques are used to stitch circuits with conductive yarns.
The Blazer project [http://www.uttermatter.com/blazer/] integrates light-emitting diodes (LEDs) into a sleeve to create a simple emissive display. We use conductive snaps to switch current, and we have also explored simple ways to incorporate light into fabric, using hard fixtures such as grommets and snaps to integrate LEDs into existing sewing practice. Blazer uses the phenomenon of "retinal persistence" (in which the image of a light burst lingers in a person's vision moments after the source has been extinguished) to allow observers to make sense of an apparently random pattern of flashing lights. When the LEDs are not moving (i.e., the person wearing the garment is seated or still), their animated flicker pattern does not form a legible symbol - all we see is visual "noise". But when the garment is moving at a particular speed, the pattern of light blinks becomes arranged along a trajectory through space, and can be read by the eye as a letter or a word. If they move at the correct speed, the five LEDs can effectively display text! When the body is in motion, the noise becomes a message.
The Intimate Memory project [http://www.xslabs.net/intimate.html] focuses on reactive garments that will display their history of use. We employ a variety of input and output methodologies to sense and display traces of physical memory on clothing. These garments record acts of intimacy, and indicate the amount of time elapsed since the intimate events occurred.
The Pure Play project [http://www.xslabs.net/pureplay.html] focuses on purely aesthetic and playful electronic garments. One example is a tunic with color details that change with heat. The concept centres on the interplay and tension between body-activated colour changes and electronically activated colour changes.
As designers of wearable technologies, we need to step back and ask why we want our fabrics to be electronic. What kind of information processing do we want to carry out on our bodies? What kind of functionality do we want to enable inside our clothes? The clothing and electronic industries are looking for the next killer application, the next big thing that will introduce wearable computing to a mass market. However, many research directions are misguided. The predominant focus on health monitoring and surveillance technologies clearly reflects military funding structures, and fails to deliver appealing product ideas that respond to personal, social, and cultural needs. The real killer app for wearable computing is to convey personal identity information - this is called fashion, and it is mostly visual.
Wearable technology in the form of clothes is thousands of years old. Clothing is also one of our most intimate and personal technologies - it functions as protection, disguise, and interface with the world. We need to think carefully about what we want our electronic textiles to do. Many technologies will eventually trickle down from military research labs to fashion design houses - but in the meantime we need to examine the funding structures that exist for this research, and the related implications for what research directions are pursued. We should not forget about the intimate aspects of electronic textiles, and research should not be afraid of the conceptual proximity of these technologies to the body. Rather, it should explore the field's obvious potential for playful disguise, personal expression, and experimentation.
Joanna Berzowska is an Assistant Professor of Design Art and Digital Image/Sound at Concordia University. Her multidisciplinary work deals with electronic textiles, wearable technology, conductive food, and squishy interfaces. Joanna's work as a textile designer is also featured elsewhere in this issue of HorizonZero, in the interactive feature Soft, Smart, and Well Connected by Lincoln Phillip.