Responsive (Clothing) Design

Conductive threads allow us to weave the web and interaction right into our garments. This creates new opportunities for expression and the socialization of technology, reducing the screens between people and the world, and allowing us to be more present where we are.

Thus far such work has had to be done on a couture (by hand, one-off) basis but technological advancements promise enabling a new future by integrating such capabilities into the textile manufacturing process, producing interactive garments at scale. In this talk Nina Walia will share design considerations from her extensive experience, including personal principles she follows, initial learnings about interaction, and how dynamics about who is involved affects design.

What does responsive clothing mean? Clothing that responds to stimulus and the environment it is in – which all clothes do, but since we’re adding technology we’re adding an adjective…

Video: 3D printed shawl that responds to where people are looking, using eye tracking.

Crash course on common technology, the hello world of responsive clothing… a garment with:

  • coin cell battery holder
  • coin cell battery
  • conductive thread
  • inputs and outputs – eg. an LED

Basic example of wearable circuit using Lilypad parts

These things are really cool but they are really fragile. You can’t put them through a sewing machine as the thread will break or easily get crossed. You certainly can’t wash the garment.

For this reason responsive clothing is similar to coutoure – painstakingly made, worn by one person, generally not practical for daily life… but very dramatic and theatrical.

Nina worked on a project early in the evolution of responsive clothing, the idea was to fully track body movement and turn it into music. To create a garment that encouraged you to explore your movement and surroundings, to examine the relationship you have with your clothes.

Why do we wear clothes, anyway? Obviously to avoid being arrested and to be protected from the elements… but if that was all we’d probably just have a couple of basic items of clothing in our closet. The real reason is expression, to represent ourselves, to demonstrate our choices and personality.

Real life is improvisation. Fluid. Open. Movement is like a language. So in many ways these projects really start with social practices and processes rather than devices.

In contrast, technology has to be used “correctly”. You learn the “right way” to touch an iPhone, even though gestures aren’t really very natural.

It’s more fun when there is a sense of fun and play, when we track natural movement and do things with that.

Wearable technology tends to stay in the coutour zone as you simply can’t do normal things like throw them through a washing machine and dryer, it would destroy the electronics. Also because the garments tend much more to experimentation and aren’t trying to be worn daily anyway.

So what of Ready To Wear?

There are many technological advancements in clothing – think of Goretex and compression sportswear. But most are practical, not many around expression.

Nina joined Google ATAP’s Project Jacquard, looking at this problem. Knowing that Google doesn’t make clothes, the idea was to enable others to do so. They also had to fit within established clothing manufacturing processes, it’s just too hard to go outside them.

They partnered with Levi’s… partly because they’re based in San Francisco so it was easy to meet up with them 🙂 But Levi’s showed them how full on the denim manufacturing process is, with heat (it literally gets burned) and stretching. Levie’s thought it would be impossible for conductive thread to survive such a harsh process, but the engineering team took it as “challenge accepted!”. If they could crack denim they’d be able to use the technology in almost any other fabric.

They did it! …she can’t reveal some of the details which are proprietary. But it worked! They created a smart thread that survived in denim.

What then? The technology worked, but how to make something useful with it?

Clothing designers have something we might think of as a persona, a “muse”, and a story to go with the garments they design. How does that evolve with smart fabric? The project ran into lots of people who were enthusiastic but didn’t really know what to actually do with the smart thread.

Levi’s used it in the Commuter range, which often gets used for innovation; and had a very strong community buying the products. Things like jeans made for bike commuting – with stretch, reflective spots and so on. Cyclists wanted to reduce the amount of times they pulled out their phone while riding; people walking through busy locations also wanted to be able to leave the phone in their pocket more.

Another classic situation is when people are waiting for a call, but they are meeting friends in the meantime so the phone goes on the table. Even when the phone is dormant, when it’s on the table research shows people are distracted by its presence.

At this point Levi’s pointed out you have to pick a part of the garment to make interactive. The area had to be rigid; and a piece that can be sewed on separately during manufacturing. Good options: cuff, collar, pocket, placket (where the buttons run). They also looked at places it’s possible and societally acceptable to touch.

So they went with the cuff. Which meant she had to design one of those “udder charts” defining gestures… They came up with “brush in”, “brush out”, “double tap” and “cover”. Almost immediately people wanted to customise what those gestures did. It’s tricky to teach people how to use the product, without making it too much up-front learning to be fun.

Next they needed to pair the hardware (clothing) with phones. This pushes the processing off the garment, to the phone, and through to the cloud as necessary. So they had to design an app.

Demo of the commuter jacket! Jacket lets you start music, skip tracks, look up locations, etc.

A neat social hack is to have the cuff buzz when your Lyft/Uber is approaching, to try to get rid of the awkward end-of-night ritual of people standing next to each other staring at the car approaching on a map on their phone.

Plus the jacket was actually a nice jacket. They got a review from GQ “finally a wearable that’s wearable!” which is a bit nonsensical but we get what they meant.

You can buy this jacket! Even in Australia!