At the Bay Area Maker Faire in May, Anouk Wipprecht stood on stage as Tesla Coils sent close to a million volts of electricity coursing through her chain mail suit.
Wipprecht also wore a 3D printed dress, plus plasma balls on her shoulders that glowed with each arc of lightning. It was the equivalent of a Fashion Week runway show for the geeks who had gathered at the Faire to see the latest robots, drones and wacky inventions.
Wipprecht has created a dress that extends spider-like legs when someone draws too close and another dress that becomes transparent when you want someone near. Each creation interacts with its environment, telling the world something about its wearer without them ever having to open their mouth.
“I make statement pieces,” Wipprecht said in a recent interview with me. “It’s the very poetic nature of what electronics can do.”
But like the fashion that appears on Paris or New York’s runways, her creations are not exactly practical for everyday wear. They are really meant to inspire the advancement of textiles that combine both fashion and technology.
Over the next decade, that could finally become possible.
Materials science matures
So what does it take to merge technology and fashion? The world isn’t lacking for talented designers, who have already turned out good-looking pieces of hardware like the Jawbone Up and Ringly. What was missing until now were electronics small enough to fit into clothing the same way as a button or a single cotton fiber.
That started to change with the advent of the mobile phone, the mass adoption of which pushed manufacturers to develop ever smaller but more powerful chips and batteries. The need for long-term monitoring in the healthcare industry has led to tiny temporary tattoo-like patches of circuits and sensors. We can now weave antennae and other wires directly into clothes in the form of microscopic conductive materials like silver nanowires.
But the technology isn’t quite to the point where it is easy to make a smart textile. Startups that wish to do so need to find their fabric and sensors and then independently develop a way to combine them.
“Quite frankly, we thought it would easier,” smart sock startup Heapsylon CEO Yet Vigano told my colleague Stacey Higginbotham last year. “The materials research has been challenging to say the least.”
One of the biggest challenges is the battery. Designers can choose between a small size and a long battery life, but not both. They can’t be woven into clothes in the form of fibers and it’s hard to make them safe for the average washer or dryer. As a result, wearables like the OMsignal shirt tend to have a tiny electronics pack that needs to be removed before every wash.
But once again, this technology may get a push from another industry. Researchers in the medical industry are working hard to create wireless charging devices that could power a pacemaker or other implant. Someday, that same technology could power the millions of wearable devices that could be in our future.
An electronic shirt for everyone
When designer Alison Lewis surveyed the tech industry, she only saw ugly wristbands and clunky attempts at electronic clothing. She wanted technology and fashion to be on the same level, and for people to be truly excited about wearing technology.
“A lot of people can make something that has a board stuck inside of it and add some lights,” Lewis said. “Very few people can take something and create it so that it feels good; you can fold it, wash it and hang it on a hanger.”
Lewis, who helped start Made in Space, the maker of a 3D printer bound for the International Space Station, first made a dress that displayed the wearer’s heart rate. Since then, her startup Switch Embassy has created a t-shirt and purse with embedded LED lights. The LEDs and circuits are woven right into the fabric. They are washable and foldable.
Creating the shirt “was hard. It was very hard. It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Lewis said. “But it acts as what it is: a shirt.”
The shirt and purse are not yet widely available, but when they are buyers will be able to use a mobile app to display custom designs and messages. Future models could display heartbeats or change based on input from the accelerometer already built into Switch Embassy’s products.
“I think lights are just the beginning,” Lewis said. “I think everybody focused on the wrist is missing the point. Until you start thinking about fabric and fashion, (wearables) will always stay in … healthcare.”
It’s a sentiment that would please Wipprecht. Until technology, like fashion, can augment who we are in the exact way we want, it won’t be compelling enough to wear on our bodies.