in style magazine

The Road Ahead - Special Advertising Section
"Wearable Computers Make for Funky Fashion"
Smart technology will lead to clothing and accessories that are functional and fun

By Alex Lightman

November 2004


[text of the article]

Fashion is about to get a lot more high-tech - and smarter.

The first 50 years of the computer revolution was all about divergent devices, which is why you have more gadgets than you can carry at once. The next 50 will be about convergent devices. Within the next three years, we're going to start building technology into your apparel and accessories called wearable computers. Nothing as literal as laptops around your neck, but miniature digital gadgets incorporated into fashions, as well as Internet-connected watches, bracelets, and belt buckles. They will be hands-free, so you won't have to go on an archaeological dig in your purse or your pocket to find them.

"Smart" technology, now at the artistic and development stage, will be servile, ready to obey your commands - almost like a Mini Me. Researchers at Georgia Tech are developing the Gesture Pendant, to be worn on a chain around your neck, which control household devices, from a home theater to lighting.

Conceptual examples of this technology were on the runway in August when my company, Charmed Technology, co-hosted SIGGRAPH (Special Interest Group Graphics) 2004 CyberFashion Show at the L.A. Convention Center. In the midst of models showing off wearable computers and other futuristic punk fashions, I wore my $3,333 illuminated motorcycle jacket, custom-made with 300 feet of different-colored EL (electroluminescent) wire. On the back is a sort of neon light bulb, taking artistic license with my luminous surname. If you wanted your name or symbol in lights, what would you wear?

Now imagine going to a club or a rave, and you're all aglow with illuminated earrings and glitter on your face, plus an illuminated halter top, belt, and shoes. People thought they had to keep up with fashion trends before? I don't care what you've paid for your clothes or which leading designer you used, if someone else is wearing illuminated clothing, they're the center of attention and you're still in the Dark Ages.

If that isn't enough, imagine connecting clothes to your iPod, and getting a good, good vibration from the music - meaning, as Marshall McLuhan put it, the medium is the massage.

At our fashion show, we had the massage shirt, made with half spheres filled with ball bearings that have a current running through them. This makes the balls act like jumping beans, which vibrate and massage your back.

How about television clothing, made with fiber optics woven into the material? You could take video clips of your favorite celebrity, store them on a digital device and "wear" the images on a jacket. Think of it as a 21st-century sandwich board. Or imagine a screen on your sleeve or T-shirt showing video highlights of your pets, kids, or vacation. You could even advertise yourself. ...

Eventually everyone will be showing off some type of wearable computer, But here's the hard part: We've got to get everybody doing it at once so the economies of scale reduce the manufacturing costs. Right now, non of this stuff is cheap. So the challenge is to start with a single segment and application, and mutate from there. For example, first get the clubbers and ravers wearing illuminated clothing and accustomed to carrying a power supply and a microcontroller. Then it's very easy for them to add a wearable computer to their ensemble.

Another obstacle: Who's going to manufacture these products? Probably not traditional companies. I asked a well-known computer executive if his firm was interested in wearable computers, and he said no. So I think it's going to be a new wave of start-ups, founded either by the "Borgs," as wearable pioneers call themselves, or Borg Again venture capitalists.

Ultimately this technology will help reduce stress, by freeing you of the nagging idea that there's one more thing you need to do. Your Mini Me will help you survive your daily routines, and, in the process, bring new meaning to the phrase, "What a smart outfit."

For more info about the jacket pictured, which was made by Enlighted, see this page.

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