THAT'S WHAT I CALL SMART CLOTHES
CuteCircuit, an "interaction design" company, offers T-shirts that can massage you by telephone, and a skirt that knows when you're excited. A report from Evgeny Morozov at the MobileCamp technology conference in London ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
“How old are your clothes?”, asks Francesca Rosella, a partner in CuteCircuit. Fashion defines itself by change, yet at a functional level our clothes are still doing what they did decades, centuries, even millenia, ago. First, they provide protection and shelter. Second, they tell us about the position of their owners in society (think about religious dress codes, and national costumes). Third, they provide a measure of self-expression: how I see myself.
Sure, there have been improvements and breakthroughs, such as the zipper, artificial fibres, waterproof materials. But functions have barely changed.
Even today, most innovation in the fashion industry has to do with production, logistics and distribution. Francesca tells of a conference on fashion and technology that she and her business partner, Ryan Genz, attended in Milan, which was all about inserting RFID tags in T-shirts for tracking items better. “All those big names talked about nothing but how incredibly fantastic it would be to introduce RFID tags in clothes to track the logistics and how many items they sell. How boring is that? Is it the most creative thing you can do with clothes that have RFID tags in them”?
Francesca is an architect and graphic designer by training. Ryan is an artist and an anthropologist. The central question they ask themselves is: how can our clothes do more? After all, they say, 65% of communication is non-verbal. You probably remember what somebody wore, long after you forget what he said.
We have plenty of technology in and around our bodies. Think about eyeglasses and hearing aids, IUDs and pacemakers, prosthetics and silicon breasts. If we are willing to implant technology inside our body, why shouldn’t we want to wear more technology outside? A number of recent trends and concepts have strengthened the case for clothes that communicate: blue-jacking, pod-casting, mo-blogging, smart mobs.
Portable does not mean wearable, yet companies often use those terms interchangeably. A PDA in your pocket or an iPod attached to your belt is not really something you wear. but something you carry. Wearables, says Ryan, are supposed to make life easier, not more complicated.
Francesca outlines the process of designing a "wearable experience". It has to be feasible (it should be possible to implement the project idea technologically); it has to be sustainable (all the classical business factors should be factored in); and it has to be desirable (there should be a user-base that would be interested in your products).
“Do we really need to send emails while skiing? Probably not. The real point about wearable technologies is about empowering people”, says Francesca. Wearable technologies are not going to be "silly mash-ups between fashion and science-fiction”
Wearable technology has been slow to gain a market, she says, because it has been too much about connecting to the internet, too little about connecting with other people. Today everybody is a platform. If you have a technology that connects two mobiles, it can connect two people.
Now for CuteCircuit’s product of the moment: the "Hug Shirt", which transmits and receives hugs. When you give your Hug Shirt a hug, sensors embedded in the cloth measure the strength of your touch, your skin temperature, your heartbeat rate and the duration of the squeeze. They send this data to your phone via Bluetooth; your phone sends this data to your friend’s mobile phone; it travels via Bluetooth to his or her shirt, and your friend feels a hug based on your “inputs”. You can even send a hug if your friend has a Hug Shirt but you don’t, using “Hug-me” software.
The shirt is washable and rechargeable. If somebody sends you a hug when you aren't wearing it. you get a message: “You’ve got one hug waiting. do you want to feel it?”
Francesca talks about some interesting uses for Hug Shirt: during rock concerts, or for kids to cheat in class by using a special “hug language”. Plus, the feeling you get after being “hugged” is so relaxing as to feel almost like a massage.
Another idea from CuteCircuit is "Accessory Nerve", an application for busy people stuck in meetings. Again it links your mobile phone to your clothing via Bluetooth. When you get an incoming call, the sleeve of your shirt rises up in pleats. If you are busy, you smooth down the pleats, and your caller automatically receives a text message saying “I’ll call you back later”.
Mobile technology is a particular favorite for CuteCircuit. Francesca says that she’s always been losing her phone, or it would always end up on the bottom of her bag, which was very inconvenient. So they designed a special mobile phone dress. It gives you a little sensor on your wrist, and whenever you want to take a call, you draw your hand closer to your ear. The antenna is attached to your ankle, which helps to save you from too much radiation. Although it doesn’t have a keyboard yet, it will have one soon. Or it may be powered by voice: Francesca is keen on voice recognition, which she thinks has a great future in wearables, since it makes screens almost unnecessary.
Do you want to signal doubt about all this? Or enthusiasm? CuteCircuit can help you there too. It makes "reactive clothing" which changes colour and pattern depending on the activity of the wearer . The Skirteleon even incorporates the mood of the wearer into its colouring. So go ahead: turn green with envy.