3-D glasses, sleep-monitoring headbands, energy-generating jackets…Wearable technology is on the verge of becoming mainstream. But can ski goggles with a built-in GPS and leotards that remind you to sit-up-straight actually be stylish and not just, well, geeky?
The world of wearable technology has come a long way from the “wearable computer” of the 1970s. Back then, researchers at the MIT Media Lab in Massachusetts were experimenting with attaching computer parts to their bodies and clothing. The early prototypes were not exactly stylish.
Today, there’s a movement to blend technology and fashion more seamlessly together. Designer Jennifer Darmour came to South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive to talk about how we can literally weave technology into our clothing.
“Let’s face it,” Darmour says, “if we are going to be making these wearable devices and gadgets and we’re asking people to wear them, they need to look good.”
She says it doesn’t matter if your sweatshirt can protect you from UV rays and your shoes can track calories if their uncomfortable and unattractive.
Darmour has already completed several pieces of clothing that are both interactive and stylish. One is a fitted charcoal-colored jacket that allows you to use your zipper as a volume control for your music.
There are a dozen pleats that that run along one side of the rib cage. And underneath each pleat the pattern is slightly different. “That is is the functional element of the zipper which becomes the volume control,” Darmour explains.
“The idea is that when you’re unzipping your jacket, you are coming closer to somebody and so that you can have a more intimate conversation the volume goes down,” she says. And as you are walking away from somebody you zip the jacket back, raising the volume of your music.
The garment uses a microcontroler board called the Lilypad Arduino. Then there’s custom software that translates your gestures into messages. You could then customize the messages, a flip of your hood could send a note you’re leaving home and untying a belt could send a message you’ve finished work or are relaxing.
But Darmour is most excited about a tank top that doubles as a Pilates instructor. If your posture isn’t right – say you’re slouching or one hip is raised higher than the other – the garment lets you know with a vibration.
“So it gives you this invisible feedback loop where its listening to your movement, telling you where you need to adjust, you make the adjustments and you do it in a way where you don’t have to take out your phone, you’re not disrupted,” she says.
Still, we’re a ways from being able to buy clothing like this at Target or Macy’s. Manufacturing costs too much, and major designers are hesitant to dive in. But technology is changing that too.
Through her company Decoded Fashion, Liz Bacelar helps leaders in the fashion industry adopt new technologies. She says designers will soon be able to make a cotton or silk dress, even buttons and zippers, with 3D printers.
“This is already so exciting,” Bacelar says. “But the next big step of it all is design as a product because if we all have 3D printers in our homes what we need to buy is design, we’ll just need to upload the design and print it out.”
Dia Campbell loves the idea of interactive clothing. I found her teaching people to sew LED lights onto t-shirts with her co-workers of SparkFun Electronics. She says marrying technology and fashion is empowering.
“It’s about filling the needs that are in your life…choosing the Do you want to interact with social media, you can do that! You can have a dress that lights up whenever somebody tweets you so that everyone knows how popular you are.”
Now, making that twitter dress both beautiful and functional requires geeks and fashionistas to collaborate. Which they seem to be doing at SXSW in Austin.
In Dallas, technology and fashion have a history of coming together. After UT Dallas graduate Amy Pickup took a class called “Fashioning Circuits” she decided to take what she learned and teach kids at a summer camp. The focus of the course, held at the Oil & Cotton public art studio in Bishop Arts, was how to use the LilyPad Arduino to incorporate electronics into clothing. Though Pickup is now in New York City, she says she’s working on finding someone to continue running the camp in upcoming summers.