Some thoughts on sensing, smart, wearable technology and e-textiles

I get asked a lot about what appeals to me about wearable technology, so I thought I’d put together some of my current thoughts…

I’m fascinated by how sensing, wearable technologies and e-textiles will become an increasingly important addition to our future.

Twinkle Tartiflette on new mannequin
Twinkle Tartiflette – a Lilypad Arduino driven interactive word/music artwork & wearable, 2010.

Whether we like it or not, we presently live in an economic / political era where we’re constantly told there’s not enough money in the community coffers and so resources will become increasing hard to source. The current UK Government is pushing responsibility for many things back at us via the ethos of Big Society as a way to manage shortfalls in community care – which is pretty depressing.

It is very cool and rather convenient then, that in the not too distant future, wearable technology may give us some help with our lifestyle needs and personal independence. We’ve been talking about ubiquitous computing and the social of media for a while now, but how the streams cross and actually become part of us in a much more intimate and useful way interests me.

For me, this is where shrinking computing components, e-textiles and canny design comes together. We’ve had futuristic looking clothing, research and development departments tweaking devices for years, plus utopian ideas gracing sci-fi and all manner of future gazing documents and films, but in reality we’re only just on the cusp of having the right convergence of media, technology and ideas for this micro, wearable future to start becoming a reality.

I feel that wearable technology is on the precipice of an exciting leap into mainstream culture, right now in my humble opinion, it’s at about the same point of development as personal computing was in the 80s: raw, unrefined, without standards, but new, exciting and full of possibilities – as opposed to the clumsy, bulky and unfocused history that prevailed the wearable tech of the past.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that rapid prototyping technology, 3D printing, the culture of Makers and Hackers, Hackspaces and events such as Maker Faire are also interwoven in the history of pushing experimentation with wearable technology forward.

Team Fragile (formerly BOB)
Makers and Hackers event, 2009.

Empowerment via tinkering, due to technologies such as Processing.org, Arduino, the various flavours of ‘duino microcontrollers, mbed, and particularly sewable microcontrollers, actuators and sensors such as LilyPad Arduino are pushing experiments forward. This is influencing exciting and progressive ideas of what technology means to people and especially into the realms of what people want tailored for them – rather than being antiseptic, turgid or created for commercial gain. All this has made for a liberated approach to creating and thinking what wearable technology could be and can be used for in 2011 and beyond.

Dr Jan Zimmermann on tech embroideries Dr Jan Zimmermann demonstrating new, embedded LED embroidery technology at Smart Fabrics Conference, April 2011.

Earlier this year, in April 2011, I attended the 7th annual Smart Fabrics Conference, hosted this year in London. It’s the world’s symposium for smart, wearable and e-textile technology, and draws presentations and attendees from the cream of the commercial, research and academic side of the community. I observed and learnt a lot from this 3-day experience and noted how diverse and yet still fledgling this growing community is. Comparing my three-day encounter I had with this community to that of the Maker community where I am usually to be found, I feel there is quite a difference between the two. Obviously, there is a commercial difference, so I wasn’t quite sure how much detail of the latest tech was being revealed, but it was very good to hear from researchers and academics and of course the snippets from the commercial side. Speakers represented universities, R&D laboratories and big business, and I noted major funding players such as Adidas, US Army, and Philips, to name a few. It was very interesting to note the difference between this and the Maker / Hacker communities in terms of where their priorities and interests lie, and crucially where the development funding is coming from!

So what’s the commercial potential that is attracting so much attention right now? Well, it’s predominantly flourishing in entertainment, sports, fashion, medical, lifestyle, specialist environmental, space exploration and military areas. To elaborate, here are some examples and a smattering of links to the awesome wearable tech that’s out there, with a few examples of my own work thrown in…

Entertainment and performance: well I could almost just say Lady Gaga, whom has been integral in wearing ever-more complex stage outfits which incorporate all sorts of technology, opening audiences eyes and getting them to accept technology as part of her personality and show. But, all sorts of artists and performers: from ballet dancers to, traveling shows and musicians have, for some time, also been incorporating technology into their outfits and performances.

Electroluminescent panel portholes An electroluminescent panel, part of my Ghost Ship Porthole dress.

The Dare Droid is a startling biomechanic cocktail-making outfit that uses medical and other hacked hardware to mix cocktails in exchange for a game of ‘Truth or Dare’. The performance’s Raison d’être is to explore human interaction in public spaces.

Fashion: from temperature and light sensitive inks, LEDs and electroluminescents, to phones, screens and sensing tech embedded in everyday wear, there is a huge potential for wearable technology and e-textiles to become integrated into fashion.

The N12 3D bikini by Continuum is a stunning example of what can be made by 3D printers. It’s made with Nylon 12 and snaps together so there is no need for stitching and the flexible, intricate design of thousands of connected plates is just amazing.

Amy Winters awesome designs feature prints that use thermo and hydrochromatic inks, that creatively use patterns with the properties of the inks to reveal themselves or disappear depending on light and temperature.

In terms of my own work, Neon-Victoriana Queen is an example of an electroluminescent costume, which I’ve exhibited at Kinetica Art Fair and Maker Faire this year. Its inspiration lies in Japanese Harajuku street fashion, of which I am a big fan and in turn has influenced me to create a my own technology based sub-genre: ‘Neon-Victoriana’. Another is the Ghost Ship Portal dress (below), which uses electroluminescent panels.

Electroluminescent panelled me
My Ghost Ship Portal dress, 2011.

Sports: athletes are finding it ever harder to improve human record times. Basically it comes down to the minute shaving off of milliseconds from performances and so monitoring athletes via their vital signs is significant to gaining those new human achievements. Also, from the point of view of broadcasters, they would like to give us ever more exclusive visuals and sounds from the athletes experiences, plus to have reliable communicative technology to give the viewer an athlete’s perspective live and authentically. With the 2012 Olympics coming up the wish list for sports tech is really hotting up!

Textronics have some intriguing sport performance, safety and health monitoring wearables and e-textiles. These range from clothing which integrates sensing fibres for heart monitoring to polymers, with variable resistance properties that can behave as strain gauges, switches and sensors.

Medical and lifestyle: smart textiles and wearables are becoming able to deliver medicines more exactly, hygienically and topically, and to also monitor patients from home or traveling so patients are not confined to long periods of hospitalization or being indoors.

Public groups such as the Quantified Self are devoted to ‘self-knowledge through numbers’ via monitoring themselves. For example, to improve their health, make changes to their lifestyle or monitor their moods by keeping tabs on their personal data. They do this via a plethora of means such as medical monitors, gym equipment, weighing machines, plus keeping spreadsheets, notes and graphs.

An example of medical technology is the non-invasive wearable cardioverter-defibrillator, which can be worn by patients at risk of sudden heart failure, whilst their doctors assess their health and decide what future healthcare plans need to be made.

Hactivate: You make my <3 flutter “You make my <3 flutter" sensing mood wearable, 2011.

Eric Boyd’s Heart Spark is an LED PCB pendant which pulses to one’s heartbeat via a Polar gym heartbeat transmitter chest strap. Eric has made the Heart Spark open source, which has allowed me to study the circuit diagrams and code, which I have in turn hacked its code and attached to a heart-shaped proximity sensing pendant that I have made. Combining the two pendants, I have created a mood device – the proximity sensor detects when someone has entered the wearer’s space and lights up three LEDs on the Heart Spark, which meanwhile pulsates 3 LEDs to the wearer’s heartbeat. My next step is to add a way of logging the data from these moments and visualise it on a graph, to see if there are fluctuations in heartbeat when someone enters the wearer’s space. I’d also like to add a simple camera device to log the data against images. I call this new hack / wearable tech: “You make my <3 flutter”.

Another mood wearable of mine is “Yr in mah face” which uses a temperature sensor to detect fluctuations in heat from breath of someone entering one’s space or a fluctuation in the wearer’s body heat from mood or circumstance.

'Yr in mah face' temp-sensing t-shirt
“Yr in mah face” temperature sensing mood t-shirt, 2011.

Extreme environmental and military clothing: for example those working in extreme or dangerous environments need monitors to tell them when they’re safe or in danger, for example fire fighters, arctic workers, astronauts or those working with chemicals. Similar to the extreme environmental clothing needs, the military want the latest sensing tech in their clothes such as adrenalin sensing fabrics, monitoring, GPS, moisture and heat absorbing clothing.

At last week’s London Quantified Self meet-up, we heard about Hidalgo’s Equivital vital signs monitoring wearable, which was developed and tested by the US military for physiological monitoring in a military environment. It gathers signs of different human states and brings the data together for analysis, for example: how close soldiers were to heat stress, fatigue or no longer being functional.

So what’s next? Well, things are changing very quickly and I’ll probably have a different take on things in another six months (see some of my observations from Smart Fabrics Conf). What I do keep saying is that there’s still no killer app for wearable technology, so in that respect it’s still all to play for! I’m currently researching, keeping long lists of links and ideas, and of course a beady eye on what’s going on out there: in the Maker and Hacker communities, in the research labs, in funding and academia and in business of what we might want, call, use, need, wear and manufacture in terms wearable technology!

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