All the shades of Fashion Technology
Recently, Rasmus and Sonja from our team have been to a Fashion Hackday at Fab Lab Berlin. It was an amazing event in the forerun of the re:publica2016, with international pioneers of the fashiontech scene and a beautiful show of the resulting prototypes in the end. It was heaps of fun, and we now call a second piece of immersive clothing our own: the EchoTech Cloak.
On the verge of a trend
Before heading over to Berlin, we discussed a variety of possible directions to go with our next piece. We felt like picking up the immersive approach of the Reverb Hoodie but with a stronger understanding of the fashion aspect of clothing. After all, wearable technology seems to be somewhere between a niche and a hype, and we want to understand which aspects of wearable technology can actually be of relevance for future products. We arrived on multiple opinions, which we would like to share with you!
Wearable ≠ Wearable Technology
Smart watches, fitness wristbands and everything in between has been on the market for a while and become the equivalent of a wearable in the perception of a lot of people, even as objects such as smart jewellery are slowly emerging. The least common denominator of these devices is their attempt to operate on the edge of conscious attention. While they strive to be your helpful assistant with every tiny task, they mainly try to stay out of focus for the rest of the time. No irritation, no invasion of your attention, a sleek helper blending into your every day live, ready to assist with a touch of your finger. A bike helmet, that does not look like a helmet, mini computers in watches that look like they belonged to your grandmother, elegant necklaces that glow when you get a text message— all of these appliances try hard to not appear as technically advanced as they are, just in order to not disturb what we are used to and expect from things worn on our bodies.
Wearable technology on a broader scope though aims for so much more.
It can be a vessel for new perceptional channels, a new intimate connection between people, providing an impact that can not be as easily ignored and that alters not just micro interactions, but macro experiences in a profound way. Obviously not a whole lot of wearable technology of that scope has actually hit the market yet. The understanding of the potential of that kind of technology is limited to the reading of ongoing research for the most of us. Transmitting another persons touch through reactive textiles, broadening our senses by tapping into synesthesia, creating new connections between our conscious and our unconscious brain are opportunities to create experience that are impossible to ignore within or implement into our daily lives without disrupting our daily experiences. They only reach their full impact if we start moving away from the screens and our mainly favoured senses of vision and hearing and work with senses that have the potential to reach a more unconscious part of our brain such as touch or smell.
The opportunities offered by wearable technology clearly reach so much deeper than being little unobtrusive helpers.
Wearable Technology ≠ Fashion Technology
Fashion is a statement, technology foremost a commodity. Fashion helps us to stand out or blend in, to express or to cover up. It is the part of our appearance we have the most control over and that offers the highest flexibility.
Technology so far however is mostly static, being built with one purpose in mind, in which it excels in delivering. So far, technology within fashion — as in on a runway — has been mainly used to highlight the eccentric appearance and has mostly been used for a spectator experience. The experience of wearing a piece of fashion technology is thereby affected mostly by the reactions of the audience, not by a real channel of communication between fashion piece and wearer directly.
Wearable technology focussing on the wearer’s experience through new functionalities on the other hand has mostly neglected the spectator experience or rather aimed to hide any technical enhancement from a potential audience and thus counteracted the characteristics of fashion. Exceptions are conceptual design pieces, prototypes of what is hopefully on its way to hit the market soon: pieces that offer a modified experience to the wearer by opening new means of perception or connection, while also highlighting these modifications in their appearance. It seems that those pieces which combine functionalities directly modifying the wearers experience with a characteristic appearance highlighting those modifications face a couple of obstacles. Social acceptance might not be that high yet, as those pieces between fashion and tech might trigger suspicion and could make people around the wearer uncomfortable, since the implications of the features are not directly obvious.
In that sense, fashion is both about how we are being perceived and the perception we have of the world.
Traditional materials though limit this expression in structure to sound, looks and material. We were interested in how we could work with more elusive parts of the world, factors which normally lie outside of our perception, just as we did with the Reverb Hoodie, and how we can use those properties within design for fashion.
A Dream of Extended Perception
With all those thoughts in mind, we set out to prototype another piece of wearable technology, that would extend the borders of our sensual perception. Looking into other kinds of senses that exist in nature and sticking with our fascination for the hertzian spectrum, we quickly ended on echolocation as an interesting experience to explore. Obviously our plans were also shaped by the constrains in terms of time and material. This particular project uses sonars to scan the area in front of the wearer and translates it to vibration output. Inspired by a sense made for orientation in complete darkness, we aimed for a piece resembling the feeling of being both muffled and shielded by darkness, a feeling that disconnects you from the world around you and brings all focus to yourself.
We decided to create a modular piece, with a collar containing the sensors and vibration elements, and a cloak, adding to the engulfing feeling of darkness. The cloak is made of a middle grey fabric, just in between dark and light, with a light shimmer, catching single reflections of light.
The neck is one of the most sensitive parts of the body, which intensifies the sensation of the vibration. The vibration intervalls shorten the closer an obstacle gets. The shorter the intervall the more stressful the experience becomes, as the vibration close to one of the main arteries has a direct effect on our comfort level and actually affects the heart beat. In contrast, a slow vibration has a relaxing and calming effect.
In one way, this piece of fashion technology supports disconnection, invisibility and soleness — aspects, which might come short in todays lifestyle, but are important nonetheless. In another way it allows for a new perspective as we understand the world through a different mean that we are used to.
Of Humans and Cyborgs
So where does that leave us? We are very satisfied with the outcome of the event and the implementation of our thoughts into something tangible and wearable. But this process has also left us with new questions, such as: why wearing technology on our skin and not underneath? Obviously our skin is not just another barrier to breach to create an even more intimate experience. Clothing is an additional medium we can work with to enhance the experience and certain experiences become intimate because they happen outside of our body and not within its physical boundaries. But just as with the currently marketed wearables, technology under the skin is currently marketed for purpose of convenience. But convenience is not what leaves an impression — discovery is, and emotions do. Enabling exploration and triggering emotions is a much richer contribution of design to technology than just making our lives easier and more efficient. It allows us to see the world from another perspective and broaden our perception, which can mean so many things: more awareness, more choices, more empathy.
It will be fascinating to see how the current trends will develop, as technology rapidly moves on a path that could be called “proto-cyborgian”: “Cyborg” being understood as a human with machine abilities integrated into their bodies, and “proto-cyborgian” as a step before, where these properties are added by things that are a close but not permanent part of the wearer.
We are looking forward to further explore this grey area between human and technology, as both move closer and closer and the borders begin to blur! Stay tuned for our next experiments :).
We are constantly interested in participating as well as hosting hackathons, jams and other events that foster experimentation. If you want to collaborate on something interesting, drop us a note!
Get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more about our studio and internal projects or give us your thoughts on cyborgs and proto-cyborgs.