Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Fostering Dialogue: Wearable Futures Conference

BY JESSICA HEMMINGS

Wearable Futures: Hybrid Culture in the Design and Development of Soft Technology University of Wales, Newport
September 14 – 16, 2005

“Wearable Futures: Hybrid Culture in the Design and Development of Soft Technology” was held at the University of Wales, Newport from the 14th – 16th of September 2005. The international conference aimed to foster dialogue between the diverse disciplines that contribute to the development of Soft Technology. The relationship of wearable technology to aesthetics and design, function and durability versus market forces; the desires, needs and realities of wearable technologies; technology and culture; simplicity and sustainability; design for wearability; wearables as theatre and wearables as emotional ‘tools’ were all cited as relevant topics. Because of the sheer diversity of applications wearable technology can take on, this conference attempted to ground discussion in the realm of the here and now by asking: What is out there? Who wants it? What do they want? How is it achieved?

Keynotes

Keynote lectures by Suzanne Lee, Senior Research Fellow at Central Saint Martins and author of Fashioning the Future, Joanna Berzowska, Artist and Assistant Professor of Design and Computation Arts at Concordia University in Montreal, Sarah E. Braddock Clarke, co-author of Techno Textiles2 and Chris Baber, Reader in Interactive Systems at the University of Birmingham revealed several core concerns. The surprisingly peripheral role the fashion industry plays in the support of wearable technologies was perhaps the strongest recurring concern of the conference, followed by discussion of the huge challenges that face collaborative research projects. Funding – or more precisely a lack there of – and the often unhelpful role the press play in over-hyping wearable technology that is still very much in the early stages of development were also addressed by both the audience and presenters.

Fashion

While much of the research surrounding wearable technologies is arguably the stuff of future rather than current realities, Lee offered a sage reminder that some of the concepts and aspirations of wearable technology are far from new. For instance, a trend in late 19th century Paris to wear garments illuminated with tiny lights that ran off batteries exemplifies an early foray into wearable technology. An interest in and existence of wearable technology may be far from new, but the field continues to struggle to establish a firm place for itself in the modern consumer market. Lee, who also works as a creative consultant for the likes of Hamish Morrow and Hussein Chalayan, noted that while students of fashion are often interested in technology, the industry is slow to engage with new technology driven opportunities.

Fashion designer Di Mainstone who has collaborated with Berzowska on several projects explained, “To me it makes complete sense to introduce a fashion sensibility into the research of wearable technology. Wearable being the key word.  So many of the fashion technology experiments that have appeared in the last decade have completely neglected the psychology and sensitivity of the user.  We have seen sterile sci-fi-esque sportswear, utilizing high-tech fabrics, integrating various music systems and a multitude of hellish cyber-punk ensembles, all singing and dancing, none of which speak to more than a relatively small audience. I believe the main flaw in many of these experiments is to think that the wearer is going to relish being adorned in high-tech fabric, high-tech cuts and to top it all off high-technology.”

A similar call for greater material sensitivity in the design of wearable technology was voiced by fashion journalist Angel Chang who called for “garments that include technology to be made with materials appropriate to their price point: silk and leather rather than synthetics.” “Smart clothing needs to be merchandized in a way consumers can visualize,” she concluded. If the technology incorporated into the garment is, understandably, expensive then so too must the cut and material of the garment itself. Wearable technology obviously needs fashion and fashion always thirsts for the next new thing, but attendees voiced concern that thus far the two disciplines have been unable to foster a healthy dialogue with each other.

Collaboration

The need for greater collaboration between fashion designers and the engineers creating wearables is vital. But Braddock Clarke posed the important question: “How much do you [as the artist] need to know in order to communicate with a technologist?” Braddock Clarke acknowledged that the “economy of scale is different when working with technology.” Rather than hand weaving one garment a designer must commit to a production run in the thousands, sometimes before the design has even been fully resolved. But she also suggested that, “good collaboration allows you to continue to work as an artist rather than a designer.” Thus it seems collaboration is less about learning other languages than it is a case of more effectively understanding and sharing your own.

Lee cites interdisciplinary research such as the Spray on Dress by RCA graduate Dr. Manel Torres, whose PhD research in the Chemistry department of Imperial College grew into the start-up company FabriCan, as an example of research capable of “truly altering the way we construct garments of the future.” Research by individuals such as Hazel White and Ewan Steel of the University of Dundee also offered much needed examples of successful collaboration, in this case questioning if “jewellery can become a tangible interface to code based art, and if so, how can meaningful new experiences, narratives and audiences be created?” Similarly, Rachel Beth Egenhoefer’s discussion of her own work which is firmly situated between technology and craft is evidence of the new ground interdisciplinary research can cover, even by a single individual.

Berzowska was perhaps one of the few presenters with more tales of successful collaborations rather than disasters. One has to wonder if this is in part due to Berzowska’s own breadth of skills, or if the key to successful collaboration is in fact down to personalities. The ability to communicate to individuals with backgrounds and working vocabularies vastly different from one’s own seems to be a skill that has no precise recipe. While the conference exposed tales of success as well as disaster, at the end of the day the greatest lesson to be gleaned from them all was that each and every project is thoroughly unique in its requirements.

Language and Location

Lee and others questioned the terminology deployed in the field of wearable technologies, reflecting that the term “wearables” itself was born out of wearable computing therefore perhaps unfairly privileging one component of the discipline over another. In the past five years, Lee noted, a positive shift to research conducted by more individuals with a background in textiles has begun to build more distinctly on knowledge of why we wear what we chose to wear, rather than simply asking, “does the technology work?”

Braddock Clarke, co-author of Techno Textiles 2 with Marie O’Mahony, notes that the years that have passed since the publication of the first Techno Textiles in 1998 have seen not only a wealth of advancements in the field of wearable technologies, but also a geographic shift in the centres of textile technology; Japan, the first to dominate the field, has now been joined by an increasingly international research and production base that includes America, Australia and Europe. This geographic expansion offers further reason that collaboration, across both disciplines as well as continents, is imperative to the vitality of future research.

Journalism and the Press

Another crucial, but thorny point, to be raised was the development of dialogue not only between the designers and makers of wearable technology, but between wearable technology and the press. Chang, a journalist herself, singled out conceptual projects that, “foster unrealistic consumer expectations” as unhelpful contributors to consumer dissatisfaction and even apathy. Lee concluded with blame on the press which “over-hypes research in the very early stages of technologies” which then inflates consumer expectation and leads to inevitable disappointment with the products available to us today. As somewhat of an outsider to the field myself, I was surprised to hear of so many projects that are still in the very early stages of material development. Some of this is undeniably due to funding difficulties, but one does wonder if too much time has been granted to imagining without the follow through of production?

Serendipity and Magic

“We have to develop a new methodology,” explained designer Despina Papadopoulos of Studio 5050 in New York City. Critical of the idea that “we need to hide the seams of computing” Papadopoulos instead called for designers “to create the object, so that we understand why we are doing it.” “You can have ideas” she asserts “but unless you make and use it, it remains just a projection.” For a conference that still managed to spend a lot of time discussing the what ifs – rather than right nows – Papadopoulos’ call to make and create, rather than conjectures and surmises brought things back down to earth. But embedded in her call to make and test was a new demand of technology, one the echoes the whimsical desires of the Victorians and their battery lit dresses. “I am sceptical that technology should disappear,” but “technology should create moments that allow for serendipity,” she concluded.

Berzowska, founder of XS Labs (Extra Soft) in Montreal, Canada, took a similar approach. “Instead of focusing on an application that might increase physical comfort or increase our productivity,” she explained, “XS Labs focus on playful scenarios that encourage a sense of wonder and delight.” Many of these creations – such as camouflage patterns that disappear when they are touched or dresses that remember when you have been groped – are not what one associates with the typical output of a science lab. Instead they suggest applications and even values that may initially seem frivolous.

Papadopoulos similarly explained, “I believe technology is truly magical . . .. It is important to develop work that is truly frivolous.” Jeweller and educator Hazel White suggested a similar loyalty calling for “whimsy and playfulness.” She went onto articulate why such concerns are valid, suggesting that notions such as magic and serendipity offer a way to “subvert the control and logic of technology.”

Skin

Clothes that grow, rather than clothes that we program, are capturing the imaginations of both trend spotters and designers worldwide. Donna Franklin’s beautiful, if unwearable, red silk and fungi dress designed and grown during a residency at Symbiotica in Perth, Western Australia in one such example of our wearable futures. So too are the bone cell wedding rings that cement your vows through material union, which are grown by Tobie Kerridge and Nikki Stott, design researchers at the Royal College of Art, and Ian Thompson, a bioengineer at Kings College London. Like Tissue Culture and Art, biojewellery’s  “aim is to bring the medical and technical processes of bioengineering out of the lab and into the public arena.”

Anne Farren and Andrew Hutchison also tackled the subject of skin, through discussion of Tissue Culture and Art’s controversial research at the Symbiotica Labs. TC and A’s “Victimless Leather” project in particular suggests that the future of the garment could lie in one grown to measure from cells, rather than woven and stitched from cloth.

Rather than growing cells outside the body, Chris Baber proposes “the human body can be understood as a mechanism or wiring for wearable technology because the body can function as a conductor.” But this notion, Baber explained with a chuckle, only works with low data rates as high data rates would “increase energy, thus increase heat and essentially cook the body.”

Dr. Zane Berzina of Goldsmiths College also spoke of recent interdisciplinary research that “investigates skin as a naturally intelligent material on the premise that it can serve both as model and metaphor for creating innovative textile membranes, which look, behave or feel like skin.” But while skin is inspiring textile design, several delegates mentioned a Spanish nightclub that requires its patrons to have a chip embedded under the skin that is scanned upon entry. As Papadopoulos questioned, “Does the notion of public and private even exist when our Oyster cards chart our every route on the tube?”

Lee acknowledged that asking our clothing to change, rather than fashion’s ongoing demand that we change or clothing, is “a logical conclusion to fashion’s pace.” But she no longer sees our clothing of the future being a resolution of the technical challenges currently facing wearable technology. Instead many point to a time when biology and technology will come together as offering us a true glimpse at our real wearable futures.

Conclusions

The ongoing challenge of establishing effective collaborations between the arts and sciences was an issue raised again and again throughout this conference. But perhaps the most looming, and unspoken, topic of the conference was the moral dilemma of working with (or learning from) research that is funded by the defence industry. A few mentioned the topic in passing, but there was not a single paper that focused on the topic, nor a speaker representing the defence industry or the military. I understand why. The military is not always keen to share research with the general public and one can imagine the challenge of enticing a speaker to attend a conference, which at the end of the day was populated to a large extent by textile enthusiasts. But ignoring the fact that the military has a huge role to play in this area of research is naive.

Perhaps a more accessible, but still foreign world, is that of medicine. Again, medical applications where addressed by many speakers, but a paper presented from a member of the medical community, using their own language and style would have required us to confront just how diverse the languages, styles and approaches to communication are between disciplines. Each keynote unquestionably made a significant contribution to the conference dialogue, but apart from Chris Baber, each keynote presenter was coming from various niches basically within the larger field of art and design. And even here the challenges of forging a collaborative dialogue raised their head. I found Baber’s lecture enlightening, while others I questioned found it overly simplistic. When addressing an audience of such varied skill levels, it is virtually impossible to communicate effectively with everyone, let alone please them all.

In spite of these challenges there is a wealth of interest and talent working in wearable technology. “We need now to make garments that do feel like garments,” Mainstone explained. “In short the user needs to be convinced of the garments purpose, which should be simple and easily applied.  We must not underestimate the appeal of the poetic functions. Most importantly the garment itself must allow the wearer to relate.  There should be something that he or she takes comfort in, this may be the choice of a traditional fabric over a high-tech one or perhaps the simplicity and efficiency of the garment . . . . Leaving us asking ‘How did I survive before this existed?’”

Future Materials (issue 5, 2005: 12-15)

image: Tissue, Culture & Art’s “Victimless Leather”