An interview with Steve Mann

New York Time's Bits recently conducted an interview with Steve Mann, one of the great pioneers in wearable tech, who talked about "mediated reality" and where he thinks wearable tech is heading. "Steve Mann is considered by many to be the world’s first cyborg. He has been using wearable computers that assist his vision since the 1970s. Now he wears a display screen over his right eye and is connected to a computer and the Internet. In this edited interview, he discusses 'mediated reality'; the coming wearable-computing wars among Apple, Google and RIM; and the brain-computer interface. Are you the first cyborg? Yes. If you look through the history of wearables, I was named the father of wearable computing, or the world’s first cyborg. But the definition of wearable computing can be kind of fuzzy itself. Thousands of years ago, in China, people would wear an abacus around their neck — that, in one sense, was a wearable computer.

Will we all be cyborgs soon? It’s kind of obvious that everyone is moving along that trajectory. What I envisioned back in the 1970s was this thing you would wear as “glass” over your right eye, and you could see the world though that glass. The glass then reconfigures the things you see.

Unlike smartphones, where we have to look at our devices, will wearables look at us? There’s research showing that glass looks at people, but now wearable computers are people looking at. You just end there, at “at.” That’s what makes it so deliciously wonderful."

Continue reading on Bits. Image is of Steve Mann via Bits.

An interview with Asta Roseway at Microsoft Research

I recently visited Microsoft Research (MSR) to meet some of the researchers and designers who are doing some amazing work with wearable technology. One of the designers I met with was Senior Research Designer Asta Roseway (MSR). She recently collaborated with User Experience Designer Sheridan Martin Small (Xbox) on a project called The Printing Dress, which won Best Concept and Best in Show at ISWC 2011 in San Francisco last month.

Here's a look at their creation, how they made it, and what Asta's thoughts are about the future of wearable technology.

The Printing Dress You are probably familiar with the old saying, “You are what you eat” but how about, “You are what you tweet?” What if this concept were incorporated into garments of the future?

The "Printing Dress" is an artistic piece that explores the notion of wearable text and its potential impact on the future of fashion, as well as our social identity. Built almost entirely of paper, the dress enables the wearer to enter "thoughts" on to its fabric and wear them as public art. While constructed from materials of the past, the dress looks towards the future with a message indicating that we are entering into a new realm of social accountability, where you literally wear what you tweet.

The Dress is powered by four Lilypad Arduinos, a laptop, a short throw projector and uses a Processing sketch to display and animate the text.

Interview Participants Asta Roseway - Senior Research Designer, Microsoft Research Sheridan Martin Small - User Experience Designer, P10 Incubations/Xbox Tom Blank - Hardware Engineering Manager, Microsoft Research Desney Tan - Senior Researcher, Microsoft Research

Special thanks to Artefact, Microsoft Research, Xbox, and Issara Willenskomer at Dos Rios.

Also featured on Engadget, Cnet, PSFK, talk2myshirt, Ecouterre, Microsoft News Center.

Is Wearable Technology Hype or Hope?

[gallery]Syuzi Pakhchyan, media designer, author and editor of Fashioning Technology wrote a great article that's published on Ecouterre. She talks about the hype and hope of wearable technology. "I have very few illusions that the survival of our planet depends entirely on the clever technologies that we, out of dire necessity, will invent. Technology alone is not going to save our planet—but we certainly are. The onus is on us: It is our choices, our demands from the market, that will bring about the necessary actions and changes in the fashion industry. Smart fabrics and wearable technology offer us an opportunity for a more sustainable future, but the promise will be bittersweet if the entire product lifecycle isn’t taken into consideration." Pakhchyan says.

She discusses ideas around nanotechnology, clothing that is infused with story, and hopeful solutions such as power-generating clothing. I love one of the quotes she referenced by educator and philosopher Marshall McLuhan:

"The book is an extension of the eye... Clothing, an extension of the skin... Electric circuitry, an extension of the central nervous system. Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act -- the way we perceive the world. When these ratios change, men change."

Read her full article on Images from

A meeting with Maggie Orth of International Fashion Machines

[gallery] I met with Maggie Orth of International Fashion Machines today in her Seattle studio. After walking in and being incredibly awestruck and inspired by the work that she has strung around her studio, we had a terrific conversation about wearable technology, the challenges, the realities, and possible opportunity areas for aspiring wearable technology designers.

A large portion of the discussion was around the challenges of designing wearable technology solutions and taking them to market. There are so many challenges across many industries that will require re-tooling, rethinking and new processes that are involved with integrating technology into our clothes. Here are just a few of the thoughts that we discussed:

  • The fashion industry has quick and seasonal product cycles. In the fashion industry, there is a short quarterly product cycle based on the seasons. If wearable technology is going to be successful, it needs to adapt and be flexible to this schedule.
  • Manufacturing requires some retooling. There are manufacturing challenges. Retooling will need to occur to integrate the technology efficiently into the manufacturing process.
  • The price is too high. The price of smart fabrics and integrated technology is high right now and the market isn't ready to drive the cost down. Designers need to think of real solutions that can target large and broad markets with high-volume orders that result in driving cost down and making the product more cost effective
  • A matter of sustainability. Electronics are not the most sustainable and eco-friendly materials. Clothing is usually a short-term product. If we integrate technology, we (wearable technology designers) should consider the end-to-end cycle of the product and the materials that are going into them.
  • A matter of need vs. innovative solution. We discussed ideas that are currently out there and challenged the level of innovation. Have we really seen solutions that are truly useful, innovative, and marketable?
  • Materials that solve the basics. The materials are just not there yet. As an example, we discussed the lack of really good display solutions for wearables, talked about the lifecycle of e-ink and flexible displays. We are just not there yet. And we discussed when we think we will be.
  • A strong business model. There are many different strategies that can be taken towards creating a real product-based and business-sustainable wearable technology company or product. We identified a few opportunity areas in this space but discussed the challenges of a sustainable business model that we have yet to see.

Overall, from manufacturing techniques to basic materials to business models, each of the areas that we discussed are non-trivial challenges, but also terrific opportunity areas for innovation in this space. In the end, however, we ended our conversation with the notion that it will take a significant cross-industry effort to reach a broad commercial audience. I believe we'll get there. Somehow.

In addition to our discussion, Maggie showed me some of her latest explorations with her gorgeous color-shifting fabric panels, which you can see in the photos. She has spent years developing a "secret sauce" to her thermochromatic ink that gives it the most vibrant saturated colors. She is also exploring the possibilities of exposing the electronics to help tell a richer story about the work.

Maggie showed me a few animated patterns that were breathtaking. You can see the detail of the hand-woven textile and the complexity of the patterns that the ink and colors make. She has truly created some amazing textural pieces that tell a rich story that also evolve over time. I can't wait to see more.

An interview with Alison Lewis of iHeartSwitch

I ran into DIY designer Alison Lewis at the Smart Fabric conference in Miami last week and tracked her down for an interview. She has been doing some amazing things while making electronics and wearable technology more accessible to a wider audience, especially girls and young women. Her work is definitely paving the way to making wearable technology more acceptable in mainstream markets. Here's what she has to say: [EF] What led you to start working with electronics and wearable technology? [AL] My interest in wearable technologies came about in graduate school at Parsons in New York. When I started playing with wearable technologies, I was able to combine my interests of fashion, interior design, computing, and interaction design into one area. It felt magical, like I could do almost anything. This feeling of empowerment initially led me into fashion technology, but it’s also sustained me as I teach and share the possibilities with others. Keeping that spark is the key to sharing and teaching the opportunities that fashion and wearable technologies can bring to others and is also important to hold onto while your working on a project in order to keep momentum.

[EF] Why have you focused on DIY (Do-It-Yourself)? [AL] I focus on DIY for many reasons. DIY has a long history in craft and fashion, allows you to personalize your designs, is about communicating ideas, and has knowledgeable consumers and creative thinkers.

My grandmother and mother taught me that working with your hands keeps your mind strong and open to new ideas. So, I’ve always been one who needs to create or make something. I ended up in DIY by accident because I started sharing my projects with other people on the web. Through this sharing process I have learned a great deal about the power of community and shared knowledge. I also really enjoy coming up with new ideas and doing illustrations, DIY is the perfect place to use these skills.

When it comes to iHeartSwitch and my book Switch Craft, DIY became the perfect medium for the message. The message being that the skills we have as crafters and makers are valuable in the technology field and that as creators we should be thinking about and influencing the technologies designed for us. I saw no reason why women who could sew and do jewelry couldn’t learn to work with electronics. The skills were basically the same, it was just a matter of language and knowledge of the subject matter. The DIY approach allowed me to cross the great social divide between the electronic world and design world and bring the subject of electronics to an already intelligent and talented group of people.

[EF] Who is your audience? [AL] My audience right now is mostly women. I did a recent survey and it suggests that the people visiting iHeartSwitch are hitting three age groups almost equally. These groups are: 18 - 24, 25 - 34, and 35-49. The majority are married or in a relationship and have interest in sewing, DIYs, fashion design, electronics, green living, and music.

I’d like the audience to expand to people interested in home entertainment, physical fitness, and beauty because these are three areas in which smart fabrics and fashion technology can really impact our lives.

[EF] You mentioned at the Smart Fabric conference in Miami last week that the DIY culture seems to be growing rapidly and expanding to people with all sorts of interests and backgrounds. What are some examples of you finding this to be true? [AL] Yes, the DIY movement has been growing for sometime now. I’ve been lucky enough to see this trend grow through my colleagues at Make and Etsy, who actually lent me a space to work when I was writing and designing the projects for my book Switch Craft. Those two entities have had a huge impact on the proliferation of the DIY movement, which is about giving creative power to the individual and to community groups. Some of the DIY groups you see emerging seem like a natural fit such as with sewing, back yard mechanics, and home design; however, there are also a huge following in areas people don’t normally think of when they think of the term DIY such as with mechanical engineering and biotechnology. It's not just crafters and home hackers anymore, it’s a whole world of people wanting to learn and share their knowledge. Watching the DIY world grow has been wild ride, for sure!

One of the companies that I have the pleasure of knowing in this genre is BurdaStyle; they are an open source sewing community with a strong following. BurdaStyle is allowing fashion designers and home sewers to build off their patterns and even create their own fashion lines and sell them on the site. Sharing their designs is a great example of how a business can use open source or DIY as a way to improve their brand and invigorate new customers.

Outside of the crafts many other areas are emerging such as mechanical engineering, you can often see this on Instructables with people making their own DIY CNC (or cutting) machines. The audience wants tools, but can’t afford them, so some people are building them themselves and sharing the steps with the Instructables community.

Craft and engineering makers are not the only ones that understand the power of DIY, one group that usually takes people by surprise is the DIY Bio Technology community. You can find them at Their motto is “DIYbio is an organization that aims to help make biology a worthwhile pursuit for citizen scientists, amateur biologists, and DIY biological engineers who value openness and safety.”

[EF] A lot of your ideas and projects appear as if they are first prototype products. Do you have plans for commercialization and bringing any of these ideas to the market? If so, what do you see as being the biggest challenges in commercializing a wearable product? (i.e., Manufacturing, Smart Fabrics, Infrastructure, etc.) [AL] Yes, my projects are very much advanced first prototypes, and I would like to have a line of products and tools with the iHeartSwitch brand name. I see this happening over the next few years. My main goal at this time is using this DIY and the fashion technology movement as a way to educate and break down social barriers that are keeping women from working with technology.

However, having a line of products is certainly a great way to reach a large group, if they are successful. The main jump for someone like me and other individual designers is finding the right partner. If you have the right partner licensing your product, then they can navigate some of the complicated manufacturing processes and deal with the larger product infrastructure such as storage and sales.

I also have a bit of a reluctance to put out yet another product in the environment and end up in the junk pile, so sustainability is a big concern for me. I see a lot of junk being produced and I’d like to work with someone with sustainable business practices; especially in manufacturing.

This means that the cost of any Switch products may be higher; however, I am hoping that some of the great people from the Smart Fabrics conference will lead me in the right direction and bring some of the products to life.

[EF] Stacey Burr, CEO of Textronics and VP at adidas mentioned last week in the Smart Fabrics conference that DIY could be a great platform for team building and idea generation within corporations who are looking at ways to incorporate technology into their soft-goods and clothing lines. Do you see yourself being a part of this? [AL] Team building and speaking engagements is where I am personally focusing my time and energy in my private consulting practice, outside of iHeartSwitch. It’s important to start building a strong common language between designers and technologists and DIY workshops and focused presentations are a great way to do this. Like I said earlier, working with your hands keeps your mind open, workshops are a gateway for creativity and bonding within a corporate or community setting. This is particularly important with emerging technology companies like smart fabrics where we are dealing with cross-disciplinary teams. There is nothing like watching a material scientist, fashion designer, and electronic engineer get together in a team and build something. Usually results are fantastic and they leave with a better understanding of the challenges and language barriers between them. It’s a winning situation for all involved.

[EF] What can we expect to see from iheartswitch in the future? [AL] I am working diligently to get funding so we can start filling Switch with many more DIYs, video interviews, and product reviews from a female perspective. We are planning to add advertising to the site as a way to support our efforts. Many people ask me to do a DIY a week, but at this time it's not financially feasible, not at the creative level that iHeartSwitch wants to promote. There is a very set, and I think well designed, approach to each DIY or project that we do on the site that works well. It is important that iHeartSwitch maintains these standards as we move forward into video DIYs.

For more info on Alison Lewis, visit her site iHeartSwitch. Photo provided by Alison Lewis and taken by Rayan Collard.