Re: [-empyre-] clothing [and/as] technology

Hi everyone,

Thanks to Scott for bringing up some interesting points. I had to go out and get the latest issue of I.D. magazine to fully respond and will summarize some of what was in the article to help those who haven't seen the publication. I'll try to respond to all the points raised, but forgive me if I miss some.

At 15:26 26/08/2005, Scott wrote:
I'm a bit of a bystander on this topic, but have been tracking the
topic for a few years now. I want to jump in and challenge you all to
move the dialogue past a re-tread of the generic or well worn
metaphors....For example, could you talk some about the recent issue
of ID magazine if you've seen it?
Sorry, seems the website isn't up to date, but the current issue is
devoted to students, esp those involved with wearable tech. In short,
I'm curious what are your thoughts about the different strategies
described from functionally driven to more expressive pieces. What are
the criteria, across this spectrum, for evaluating a piece's success?

The issue of I.D. Magazine that Scott is referring to is the Student Design review. I think what Scott was specifically referring in his post was an article on the Seamless student fashion show organized by Christine Liu and Nick Knouf at the MIT Media Lab. Seamelss - - was held on 20th May 2005. The list of participating projects are available at the Seamless website.

First I'd like to address "generic" or well-worn metaphors - The work presented in the Seamless exhibition is great, and I am a personal fan of many of the participants and projects, but like most work being done today it does not significantly break from existing trends in wearable computing or fashion and technology. As Felix so aptly put in his email to the list fashion has historically had a relationship with technology, and clothing itself can be seen as a technology in of itself, extending and amplifying our bodies capability to self-regulate and protect itself. Additionally, due to their intimate contact with our bodies clothing and fashion retain inherent communicative capabilities. Early proponents of wearable computing (such as Steve Mann and the seminal work of Thorpe and Shannon) were visionaries. Through placing computers onto the body they were able to establish some very basic and influential relationships between telecommunications, technology, and the body that are still relevant today. However, with the work of Maggie Orth and soon after Elise Co, we were offered a reinterpretation of many of these trends which asked different questions of the same relationships (that of aesthetics and materiality) and began to introduce additional histories and lines of influence apart from what had previously been the realm of computer science and engineering.

Now in regards to contemporary work surrounding fashion and technology we see work which attempts to address the multiple histories and dialogues that this emerging field draws upon, and I have yet to see anything that has in fact taken us beyond many of the "generic" and well-worn metaphors. What I have seen though, is a great number of works which address those "old" themes with greater subtlety and nuance. I think the dreaded re-tread of "old" metaphors exists as a challenge for all of us working in this area, and yet it is precisely going back to what is "old" that will reveal depth in our work, rather than the relentless hunt for the "new."

To go back to the I.D. Magazine article, Scott mentioned his former student Alison Lewis and another Parsons MFADT graduate Kaho Abe. (Parsons School of Design in New York City has a Design and Technology Program of which both Lewis and Abe are alumni.)

For example, Alison Lewis was a thesis student of mine and really
brought to my attention the redundancy of "discovery" in this field or
as Katherine pointed out that prevailing metaphors (skin, cyborg, etc)
might be preventing more depth of exploration. I'm very impressed by
Kaho Abe's work for example. Kaho's thesis basically brought up this
friction at Parsons between invention and application. Her seemingly
simple switches and controls were brilliant and in hindsight seemingly
obvious. The "problem" many stated while reviewing her work was, "how
do you plan to apply these", to which I think she struggled for
salient proposals. I say struggled, because her switches and controls
can so easily be seen as becoming ubiquitous that any attempt to
pinpoint or find fitness with particular applications as a way to
defend the invention seemed irrelevant. Throughout history there are
examples where the proposed application for a new technology was way
off the mark and we giggle at the idea that PC's would be used
primarily to hold recipes.

Alison Lewis' project Closer - - is a set of two garments. One garment responds to hugs or touches by producing sound. The other garment uses a light indicator to show the number of positive touches (or lack thereof) in an hour. This is a lovely project on its own, but things get much more interesting when looking at the spectrum of recent wearable projects which address physical touch between people. If the over-arching theme is to look at alternative ways of visualizing and amplifying physical contact looking at how other projects have addressed this issue is fascinating. For example there are the Touch Memory Dresses - and the Intimate Memory garments - by XS Labs which also track physical contact through illumination or color-changes, and Depina Papadopoulos' (of 5050 ltd) Hug Jackets - - which produce light and sound on contact. All of these projects share quite a bit in common from a technical perspective. Some sort of soft-switch using conductive fabrics is closed, and LED lights are lit, or sounds activated. In the case of the Touch Memory Dresses, two dresses use thermochromic ink to produce the color change using body heat as the control mechanism (just like the Generra Hypercolor shirts that were so popular during the 1980s.) From the perspective of technological "innovation" none of these projects provide any particularly ground-breaking solutions, but from a conceptual perspective they all share the same intent - to augment physical touch with some visual or auditory artifact and make that visible on the body, and each do it in a remarkably similar way.

Kaho Abe's project, Discreet Interfaces was also a great project. Using typical fashion notions, buttons, snaps, and tags, the project was a prototype control system for an mp3 player. But I remember when talking with Kaho about her work that she did not know of the Philips/Levi's ICD project, or the Reima Smart Shout, two previous (though now rather obscure) projects which tackled very similar issues. And with recent research, for example, such the head-mounted mobile phone/mp3 player control system Thad Starner spoke about which required waving a set number of fingers to either divert a call or control an mp3 player I'm not entirely convinced that switches and controls embedded into our clothing will be "the" ubiquitous interface that succeeds for that particular application. I think asking how Abe planned to apply her invention is actually an extremely valid question, since the technological implementation, like almost all work done with wearables these days is actually not ready for market or any sort of manufacturing process. Doing the actual materials research and development to make Abe's controls function as they are intended is really the biggest challenge to people who work in this field. Most everything works as a prototype, but that next step, to make something truly work under real-world conditions is something that no one within this field has ben able to truly answer satisfactorily.

I see most people working within fashion and technology as trying to implement their ideas using whatever means currently available. As far as the materials science goes, that's not much. Maggie Orth was quoted in the I.D. Magazine article as saying it was a "black art" with no standards, and this is very true. Intention, and definition of the problem set is important too. From a very practical perspective developing low-attention interfaces, intelligent textile technology, or creating expressive wearable prototypes each have very different requirements and are yet all essential to this field.

I think many wearable projects suffer because too much is trying to be
solved to the point that we are being invited to strap on Rube
Goldberg-like attire. If not a scope challenge, there seems to be a
lack of audience definition or research. If not that, then maybe its a
problem of presentation. Because there seems to be a drive for polish,
many projects that are really just in research stages appear to be
aimed at retail buyers. Why have fashion shows become the prevailing
mode of presentation vs. demo days in the aisles of your nearest big
box retailer? I guess fashion shows are sexier, but they are also for
an elite audience. I imagine you've seen those tabloid photos of some
unfortunate non-celeb who dared to wear a Gaultier, Galliano, McQueen
or Kawakubo(her F/W 05 brides!!) piece. Anyway, I do enjoy fashion,
but wonder sometimes about how it fits or supports your efforts. You
don't see Steve Mann on the runway! ha ha. Lest I digress...

Again we need to go back to intent. Some wearables projects are genuinely seeking to present innovations in human computer interaction. Others are intended for market and general consumption as product. And, still others are meant as expressive explorations of form. Some of this work is "art" and some manage to occupy several categories at once. I think that fashion shows exist as the primary way of showing this type of work because of historical precedence. That is how "clothing" has been officially showcased for quite some time, but perhaps this is just another vestigial practice which is holding people back. Fashion shows privilege the visual, and sometimes it is quite hard to grasp fashion/tech projects that do not change color or light up. However I do want to point out that fashion as a phenomena operates on a number of different levels. Though we tend to think of fashion shows in terms of "silly frocks" that nobody would wear in real life, often runway clothing is never intended for market consumption but exists as the stage for a designer's vision and fantasy. Garments are typically re-tooled and scaled back for normal buyers. Of course high fashion is for an elite audience. What about design shows or custom homes designed by famous architects - these are not accessible to the average person also.

Katherine had asked Floyd I think to respond about his research
methods/findings. It seems to me his project, while potentially
rewarding, failed to meet its goals in large part because his intended
audience said they'd never use it! That shocked me. Aren't people
using the basic user-centered design process? It seems a too easy
excuse to say it's expressive therefore audience adoption isn't an
issue. I've seen so many projects taking on the expression over a
distance problem (maybe it's a rite of passage?) but few seem to
demonstrate user-centered research or ethnographic studies or anything
that led me to believe that they had defined an audience of potential
users who expressed such an absence over distance and concurred that a
wearable might be able to address their desires and needs.

Just a few more related projects - F+R Hugs by Francesca Rosella and Rikako Sakai - , HoldBody by Kelly Dobson, The Hug Pillow - -

which leads us into to other close yet distant communication projects such as the Interactive Pillows - - or Faraway -, or Mobile Feelings -, or the IDEO Kiss Communicator, the Telesquishy -, or the Lumitouch -,

I think within here you will find a vast array of approaches, all of which lead to a very similar concept, and in some cases very similar implementation. Some of these projects use a "user centered design process" others very obviously don't. But I don't think that's what distinguishes the successful implementations from the unsuccessful ones. I have a hard time defining "success" with these types of projects. All of them are speculative. We do not have the technologies or the materials developed enough at this point to make most of these projects a commercial reality, and many of the creators of these works wouldn't consider market success the primary criteria for success anyway. Obviously for those that would, those standards should apply.

Apologies if I've succumbed to my own concerns for redundancy and
these questions are stale. Which leads to my last question. Is there
are an organization or more centralized place one might go to in order
to learn what's already been asked and addressed? If not, why not? Is
it because this discipline is melding into others like game designers
and theatre are merging ( Or the opposite,
it's splitting into different camps...?

Well ISWC has always been a great conference for those interested in Wearable Computing. But for fashion and technology - there really only recently seems to be a community coalescing, and this is in very early stages. It's hard to say right now where the communities will end up, but they are in flux which makes it hard to pin down.

A couple of other interesting points - The I.D. Magazine article states that the previous MIT fashion show, called Beauty and the Bits - - didn't have working prototypes, but when I chatted with Thad Starner during our meeting for the Siggraph 2005 Special Session on Extreme Fashion he told me that a good number of the projects in that first initial fashion show really did work.

The student fashion show was titled "Seamless" and yet within computer science some (Chalmers et al) have begun to promote the idea of 'Seamful' design - as an alternative to the hype surrounding "seamlessness" in technology. The linked paper was presented at Eurowearable 2003, a newer conference on wearable computing (with some fashion thrown in.) I think 'Seamful' design presents a compelling concept which breaks away from some of the more reductive interpretations of "old" metaphors, and might serve as an example of how we might begin to mine this area for more depth. It is helpful perhaps to remember that wearable computing, while presenting its own challenges, easily exists within the vision laid out for ubiquitous computing, and that when we talk about clothing as a "digital interface" we also then speak of a world full of embedded computing capability where all everyday objects might be a "digital interface" too.

So, like many a cultural studies theorist and sociologist have pointed out, as our habits of everyday dress and the signification we attach to what covers our bodies is related to the greater sets of cultural practices we value, in the computing world the terms and concepts we use to discuss fashion and technology are related to the larger currents of technology discourse and discovery. Quite plainly, this emphasis on the "new" is a flaw we see in technology discourse, and critical thinking regarding technology and its history is probably where we must start to get around the dreaded re-tread...

Anyhow, hope I've managed to at least address some of the points brought up.


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