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Get yourself connected: is the internet of things the future of fashion?


Powered by article titled “Get yourself connected: is the internet of things the future of fashion?” was written by Nicole Kobie, for on Tuesday 21st April 2015 06.00 UTC

Wearable technologies have so far been dominated by smartwatches and fitness fans keen to exploit the tracking of speed, location and body monitoring to try and improve health. Yes fashion designers are also now exploring the potential of sensors and internet connectivity to create clothing and accessories that are often beautiful and intriguing as well as smart.

Imagine a dress that glows – actually glows thanks to LEDs embedded in the fabric – shimmering down the catwalk. That’s the vision Matt Drinkwater helped achieve with Disney, StudioXO, and Richard Nicoll.

Drinkwater, a professor at the London College of Fashion and head of the Fashion Innovation Agency, calls the Tinker Bell dress the “benchmark” of beautiful wearable tech. Created in homage to the fairy in the story of Peter Pan, the dress is made from fibre optic materials that are lit up by LEDs in the dark.

Richard Nicoll’s ‘Tinker Bell’ dress was inspired by the character in the Peter Pan story.

Drinkwater expects such fashion to become a much more regular sight on the catwalk during the international fashion weeks, as well as the red carpet at celebrity award shows, but much work needs to be done.

“Elie Tahari’s iPhone dress, shown at New York Fashion Week in September 2014, is an absolute shocker,” he says, referencing the New York designer’s fifty phone-covered frock. “We’re still waiting for credible connected fashion to emerge. Almost all of the connected apparel at the moment sits within the wellbeing sector.”

There are a few British standouts, however. Lauren Bowker at The Unseen has created materials that change colour and pattern in response to sensors, including a dress that “interprets human magnetism and emotions by reading brainwaves,” and a “4,000-piece gemstone headdress that reads brain activity, portraying distinctive colour states of the individual’s thought process”.

British brand Ada + Nik unveiled a leather jacket with a built in Narrative Clip camera at this years’ London Collections: Men show.

“Ada and I felt that we were losing human experiences because we were documenting them through our phones or cameras,” says one half of the duo, Nik Thakkar. “The jacket allows the wearer to experience a moment first-hand and document it at the same time, thereby enhancing your technical ability as a being.”

London-based CuteCircuit has made light-up dresses that can display Tweets, a “hug shirt” that connects over Bluetooth to let you send a hug to someone wearing the shirt far away, and a programmable t-shirt with a 1,024 pixel display, built in camera, microphone and speakers, allowing you to show status updates, songs and photos.

“In our latest collection we have introduced a series of fine silk skirts and jackets that contain intelligent LED fabrics that change pattern and animate under control of an app on your smartphone,” adds CuteCircuit chief creative director and co-founder Francesca Rosella. “It means that in a few seconds you can download entirely new animated patterns to you skirt and have an entirely different visual effect.”

It’s not only clothing. While even the likes of Tag Heuer have announced plans to unveil an IoT wearable, there’s more to connected accessories than smartwatches. Drinkwater pointed to connected jewellery from Shoreditch-based Kovert, which alerts to notifications via vibrations, and there’s also Netatmo’s June bracelet which tracks your sun exposure.

Then there’s Intel’s MICA. Made alongside New York fashion house Opening Ceremony, Intel unveiled the 5 bracelet at tech show CES last year. An attractive display that sits on the inside of your wrist and shows notifications, MICA is also a platform for bespoke apps.

“We sat with Opening Ceremony around the table and all the ideas they came out with – our engineers had heart attacks the first time that they heard it,” says Ayse Ildeniz, vice president at Intel for new devices. “‘Oh my God. That’s not doable. But that’s impossible.’ And we all went back to work and found a way in the middle which optimises what technology can do versus what a woman would really find aesthetic and beautiful. Which is not easy.”

This year, Intel topped that with the so-called Spider Dress, which combines sensors and robotics to show how the wearer is feeling. It picks up biometric signs to see how stressed the wearer feels, and its “legs” attack if someone too close is making you feel nervous, or make room if you’re feeling friendly. It was created by Danish artist Anouk Wipprecht.

“The spider dress is an art piece,” says Ildeniz. “We opened up our R&D shops with her and said, ‘Anouk, what would you like to do?’” And that is the dress that she came up with. It is pretty remarkable, because not only does it use Edison, which is a platform that we have formed to make [the] internet of things a reality, but she put sensors on it. She created a dress that was aesthetic and she made it in a way that’s … funky functional.”

Ildeniz says she was joking with a friend about getting on a crowded metro line with a dress that starts blinking red. “I don’t know if I would want that, but it’s basically showing how the wearer is interacting with the rest of the world and showing her own sensations and emotions to everybody.” Wearing her heart on her sleeve, quite literally.

What’s next

The more sensors out there, the more dresses such as Intel’s Spider will have to interact with. “When we have a genuine sensor-led environment and our clothes can communicate with each other, with stores, with events, we will open up a world of possibilities that we have yet to explore or even understand what that could mean,” Drinkwater says. “Connected clothing will allow us to communicate in a completely new way … the possibilities are incredibly exciting.”

But what happens next for connected fashion depends on how tech evolves. Ildeniz points out that sensors and processing power could be crammed almost entirely on a phone, and interact with connected devices as a hub. Or, that power could be distributed across the body. “Whether it’s a necklace or a watch or an earring or, you know your pants or your bra for that matter, it will be distributed,” she says.

“The research is still dancing between the two extremes,” she says, but the one thing that’s certain is the world will be full of connected sensors. It’s merely a matter of deciding how to use them – to count how many steps we’ve taken in a day, or to show off our emotional state to those around us with an interactive t-shirt.

Another hurdle is making the electronics small enough, and Intel has one answer in the form of Curie, a button-sized system-on-a-chip, which can read sensors, analyse the information and transfer it over Bluetooth.

There are other challenges, notably washing clothing, with Ildeniz pointing out that most smart fitness clothing uses a “puck” that can be removed to wash them. CuteCircuit’s Rosella points out that her firm’s designs may be technologically advanced, but “we really do intend that people wear them”.

She says the ready-to-wear line can be washed at 30 degrees with standard detergents, though more delicate fabrics should be dry cleaned.

“We undertook two years of wash tests to be able to bring a fashionable, wearable technology product to market that can be used as normal fashion, but has the added value of looking beautiful and creating magical interactivity,” she says. So the only excuse for not wearing an interactive, Tweeting t-shirt is it’s at the bottom of the washing pile. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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