design, fashion and technology

...wearable technology

by Sandi Atlas-Gordon
I interviewed Despina Papadopoulos in her Brooklyn, NY studio in 2008. Papadopoulos is the head interaction designer at Studio 5050 in New York City. She focuses on the linkage between clothing and wearable technology and invents new devices in order to explore the way people communicate with each other. Papadopoulos is an Assistant Professor at NYU, where she has been teaching "Personal Expression and Wearable Technology" and the "Softness of Things: Technology in Space and Form"; courses that she developed.

You were a philosophy major. How does your 'philosophy' background fit into your work?
What I am interested in is this idea of non-verbal communication, the sociological and the anthropological effects of the work. I used to say that I wanted to make "philosophy machines"--to see if I could articulate ideas in space--to "embody" ideas, if you will. And the body, the wearable environment, is already laden with symbolic and expressive regions, so it seemed like a good place to start. I am interested in the relationship between the inside and the outside--and clothes form this kind of film between the two--they are in a way, our interface to the world.

What is the appeal of wearable technology to you?
Sir Author C. Clarke once said that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"--I agree. (Clarke is an inventor and futurist, who is most famous for his novel "2001: A Space Odyssey".)
I find aspects of technology absolutely magical. To think that an LED (a light emitting diode) is a semiconductor with inorganic material which glows brilliantly when current goes through it--I find that quite magical in its own right. So, creating a context where technology can be magical, tender and human--I am fascinated by that. And I somehow believe that if we can see the magic in that, well, then we are bound to see the magic all around us!
I also love problem solving--in many ways I create problems that I have to solve! Wearable technology introduces unique design challenges on top of the technological challenges. I also find the history of clothing fascinating. So, to bring in technology and create some sort of bridge between the past and the future, this idea drives my work to a large extent.

How do you use technology to make wearables?
It really depends on each project, but usually, we build custom-made circuit boards with a micro-controller and whatever else we need (sensors, speakers, etc.). At the Studio, I am working with my partners and 3 interns on a series of modules. We are hoping to develop some sort of a tool-kit that we can use and re-use across various projects.

What is your favourite wearable design right now?
I love the green 'Temperature Sweater'. There is a temperature sensor sewn into each sleeve and an LED alphanumerical display--one sleeve shows the temperature in Fahrenheit and the other in Celsius. Even though I have lived in New York for 15 years, I still get tripped up every time I have to convert Fahrenheit to Celsius! The sweater is meant to accentuate the relationship between the environment, the body and the clothes--a relationship so intimate that it is often taken for granted. Our clothes are our portable architecture in some ways. We have a thermometer in our house, now we have one in our clothes.

Are your wearable technology garments washable?
Yes. My clothing can be washed and dry cleaned. We have developed a system with magnets and a removable battery, so once the battery is removed, the garments are safe to wash. On the Masai dress, the collar, which features a built-in speaker, is removable, making it possible to wash the dress.

Can even the use of simple technology generate interactions?
Look at this, the MOI, made out of a wire, a little LED light and a battery holder. It is impossible to wear a MOI at a party and not generate conversation. Because the MOI is so simple, so open to interpretation, it lets people project their own ideas onto it. Once someone asked me if it was powered by my heart! The idea is to 'reclaim' technology. Technology is no longer just 'out there'--part of the VCR, the TV and the computer. The urban flickers of light now reside in you. You appropriate light, you appropriate technology, and in that instance you humanize technology. Note: I do not like calling the MOI a necklace because the idea is that it can be whatever you want it to be!

Do you see wearable technology going mainstream? I noticed that "Business Week" featured a story on Wearable Computers You Can Slip Into.
In the past 10 years, wearable technology has been in the media numerous times as being right around the corner. And yet, the only mainstream item I have seen are kid's sneakers that light up or rolling sneakers (both of which I think are great!). But, we have not really seen anything substantial yet--except maybe the Nike + iPod Sport Kit (Nike sneakers with a built-in pedometer that automatically communicates results to the runner's iPod), which is also exciting. I think it will be a while until wearable technology reaches mainstream status. The value chain--'money matters'--have to be figured out first.
In my Studio, we are creating a series of limited edition design garments (the temperature sweater is one of them) so we can subvert the issues of large scale manufacturing. We also focus on very simple iterations of technology; non-functional instances of technology in the everyday. We think integrating technology into clothing has to happen slowly, simply and evoke the serendipitous, the frivolous, and even to excite people's imagination and invoke humour. We are curious to see what happens.