As a professor of “Wearable Technology,” I find the term difficult to explain to the rest of the world. DIY electronics communities, focused on fashion-tech and hobbyist wearables, have diverged from consumer wearable electronics. From materials to design, their processes are fundamentally different. I think they should be more actively drawn together.
The Arduino LilyPad microcontroller board, which marked the beginning of DIY electronics taking physical forms that work well with our bodies, turned 11 this year. It’s time we saw a greater convergence of the creativity and humanistic form language of DIY wearables — enabled by these boards — reflected in our consumer electronics.
DIY: Designing for Bodies
I teach wearable tech at a number of universities in Toronto — in contexts ranging from fashion to cyborgs — where I guide students using an array of weird and wacky iterative design processes. We tend to focus on the single commonality we all have: a body! Everyone in the room can relate to moving around and wearing clothing.
Designing for bodies is fundamentally different from designing for screens, paper, or interactive spaces. Once you start strapping electronics to yourself, you quickly realize just how much design went into our clothing, shoes, and jewelry, that they so seamlessly integrate into our daily movements and activities.
We study conductive fabrics and how to sew a circuit. We learn that the shapes of electronic components are important because they’re part of a form language — the types of shapes found in a particular design context. Our bodies are full of smooth edges and curves, while electronics typically have hard edges and points. Sewable electronics like the Adafruit Flora and Arduino LilyPad help bridge the gap between electronics and clothing using a form language that better fits the body, such as flatter, rounded form factors with sewable connectors.
Many of the current wearable technology tools accessible to DIYers rely on craft and handmade techniques to create “soft” electronics. Very few courses can say students learned how to spin their own (conductive) yarn, how to solder, and how to make their own sensors — our wearable tech classes blend traditional craft and cutting-edge technology, with lots of room for students to align themselves wherever they’re comfortable on that continuum. The devices they create are often conceptual, abstract, and sometimes purely unique fashion statements.
Consumer: Designing for Moore’s Law
Inevitably, someone asks how to “make it real”: How do you take a project, made from hand-embroidered conductive textiles and round microcontrollers, and turn it into what we see on the market today?
Search for “wearable tech” on any shopping website, and you’ll see watches and fitness trackers that feel very different from what we make in class. This is where I see a fracture in the culture around wearable technology. The vast majority of wearable technology sits on your wrist, because that’s what we’re comfortable with. Sewable components and soft electronics are largely left out.
We’ve made technology the same way for so long — hard circuit boards with flat panels — with great success, but our bodies won’t feel comfortable with flat panels.
Commercial wearables feel more concerned about how small we can make the technology, rather than making it fit our bodies. The focus on miniaturization is made possible because of Moore’s law, which describes the alarming rate at which technology is shrinking while simultaneously gaining computing power.
It’s only in the last 10 years that we’ve begun to think deliberately about the body as an interface, and to design for it with a user-centric mindset, partly because of that rapid shrinking of technology.
If we want technology to be part of our bodies, it has to feel like an extension of ourselves, and that involves considering the tech alongside the aesthetic. In commercial wearables, we often see amazingly powerful technology void of any specific wearability concepts or form language, like the Muse headband, a very interesting brain wave sensing technology that’s also incredibly invasive, with no meaningful application.
Every so often, an experimental Kickstarter campaign pops up promising to change everything, but they rarely stick around. Technology moves so quickly, and our bodies are so picky. The smallest discomfort can be the downfall of a technology.
We’re at an interesting point in the hype cycle of wearable tech. The curve of enthusiasm over a technology spikes at the beginning when everyone is excited about its possibilities. A myriad of inventions are created, followed by a sharp decline as we realize these so-called innovations don’t live up to the hype, like Google Glass. It’s only then that we’re able to look objectively at technologies and make useful and widely adopted products.
Happily, we are exiting the initial phase of wearables enthusiasm. Smart watches and fitness trackers are becoming commonplace instead of a fancy gimmick. Their aesthetic form is beginning to change, respecting the rules laid out by the Wearable design community. Brands like Fitbit are diverging from traditional watch designs into sleek, rounded designs like the Flex 2 that find the balance between form language and information display.
But still, there’s a divide between “hard” and “soft” electronics communities that perpetuates the problem. The materials used by experimental wearable tech enthusiasts are virtually nonexistent in the commercial world. This, unfortunately, is what happens when our electronics are made with fundamentally different mindsets. I think we can do more to stitch them together.
Re:Familiar (The Drone Dress) by Little Dada explores the potential for relationships with nonhuman entities. Like a witch’s “familiar,” a drone is servant, spy, and companion all at once. Here a Parrot AR drone follows the model and carries the dress’ train, surrounding her with billowing silk chiffon.
The dress is fabricated with a body suit built from Ethernet cables covered in photoluminescent pigments, ethereal UV LEDs, and blower fans. We have reimagined the body in relationship to the server room, a key site of information exchange. Modeled by Carmen Ng.
Android Apparatus is a glowing piece of cyber armor custom-fit over a black leotard worn by an aerial hoop (lyra) performer. LEDs respond to an accelerometer built into the garment: As the dancer performs, the costume brightens, dims, and changes color with both the range and intensity of motion.
To enhance her performance without hindering her movement, we created a heat map to see where her body made contact with the hoop. The non-dominant arm and the chest don’t contact the hoop, so they’re ideal areas for the armor.
We also iteratively combined an accelerometer data visualization with the pattern while laser cutting and testing the form. The final piece is laser-cut vegetable-tanned leather, formed by traditional leather molding techniques.