2013-04-01

Why Clothing Is The Next Frontier Of Responsive Computing

A Dutch designer believes garments may become our most intimate computing devices. Is this a more marketable version of the Singularity?




Talk of an Apple watch has created an intimacy problem for personal technology. “What happens when it jumps outside of the computer screen and becomes part of our body?” says Daan Roosegaarde, who runs the eponymous design studio in the Netherlands. “Indeed, what kind of new protocol or rituals will we have, if things like this become part of our new default?”

Roosegaarde is the creator of the conceptual Intimacy 2.0 dress, the getup that made news in February by initiating a transformation into transparency when the wearer gets hot and bothered. He wants to draw a line in the sand between “interactive” technology--the kind that keeps us glued to screens--and a more passive kind of garment that reflects your state of mind by changing color or shape.

The dress, which hasn't been commercialized yet, is a somewhat refreshing glimpse into a non-nerdy future of wearable computing entirely unlike the one of Google Glass or the mind-melding of the Singularity.

The Intimacy 2.0 dress is activated by proximity and heart rate sensors, respectively, and from their naturally opaque state turn various degrees of transparent when a small electrical current runs through the e-foil. Usually when garments involve electronics, it’s the beep-boop kind with flashing LEDs and a wired-in 9v battery. “We’ve always been fascinated with this notion of a second skin, of making things that sort of feel alive,” says Roosegaarde. “One day we decided to actually apply it to fashion, where this notion is already present, but we wanted to move away from the LED, the RGB things.”

How Wearable Computing Should Work

Rather than accessory or distraction, Roosegaarde is thinking of wearable computers as extensions of extant bodily mechanisms like blushing or sweating. “Some elements of your body, although it’s your body, are out of your control as a human being,” he says. “When you stop breathing, you will faint, but after a while the body takes over again, so to speak. I like these kind of mechanisms, which are inside you.”

Roosegaarde says that this sort of responsive behavior is already commonplace on the web, and bringing it to clothing is a natural extension. “This notion of transparency, we already live in this world. In a way, we just make it very visible. But for me it’s a reflection of our reality already,” he says.

“I would love to have something that only reacts in a certain way when a certain person is there, and then when other persons are there it’s just neutral. In the same way when you talk to your boyfriend, you have a different conversation than you would with me. It’s both English, we are both guys, but you tell different stories. In a way I would love to have things that have a sort of history, so to speak. Or make pro-active notions. Maybe even matchmaking. Like in Amazon, when you buy a book, ‘Hi, maybe you like this and this book as well because your friends bought it.’ What if your clothing starts to make a suggestion somehow? Maybe it is super annoying, maybe it is super interesting. Let us find out.”

Responsive Design IRL

“There is a difference between responsive and interactive. Responsive is when I give you a push, you move away. Interactive is when you hit me back and we start up a new dialog, so to speak. It is the same with your ear, when you talk to me, we have a conversation, but when we go to a discothèque, there is so much noise, our ears start to calibrate. It becomes, almost to defend itself, less sensitive. In the same way, our software does this as well. With all our pieces, like Dune and other designs, if there is a certain action that happens too often/too frequently, it starts to become “immune” and filter that away, triggering the participant to try something different. People misjudge that sometimes by saying, ‘It does not work anymore,’ and we’re saying like, ‘No, no, no. It’s made for change in that way.’ I think it is important to keep it open for the influence of other people.”

From a systems perspective, the garment should be the display layer, he says. “As with every system, you have an input, you have a processor, and you have an output. The processing is the microchip and the firmware, the behaviour and moods, we program; the input can be basically anything, of course. It’s connected to the heart, or the eye index. The output is the foil itself,” he says.

The foil itself presented itself to him one day as he was touring an electronic paper laboratory in Germany. “There was some material lying in a corner with some dust on it. I asked them, ‘What is it?’ They said, ‘Ah, that’s not so interesting. We’re working on screens of flexible displays and the only thing that this material does is change from white to transparent.’ This immediately had my fascination, of course. The material itself actually is sort of an enhanced electronic paper which, on a microscopic level, can change in color when we slightly power it.”

Roosegaarde took the e-foil back to his own studio in Rotterdam and set his team of designers, architects, software developers, and electronics “whiz kids” to work. They spent the next 10 months making the material UV-proof, more flexible, and rigging it with a microchip-embedded system that could be triggered by various sensors. He then brought in two young Dutch fashion designers--Maartje Dijkstra and Anouk Wipprecht--to design the first two wearable prototype dresses, Intimacy White and Intimacy Black.

“We are working on a suit for men, which becomes transparent when they lie," says Roosegaarde. "It’s especially for the banking world. Let us see how the future looks then, like in a couple of years.”

Studio Roosegaarde