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Bull Session

Clothing and Technology

February 19, 2016          

Episode Summary

On The Digital Life this week, as a part of our trendspotting series, we discuss the intersection of high tech and clothing.

Clothing is one of humanity’s original technologies — it has protected our bodies for thousands of years. Today, clothing designers are working with multi-disciplinary teams, integrating input from engineers and synthetic biologists into their work. From 3D-printed couture to scarves dyed with bacteria to textiles grown in the lab, emerging tech is creating rapid innovation in the fashion industry. How do people interact with their clothing? How does clothing respond to the environment? And what is the next step? Join us as we discuss all this and more.

Boston MFA Exhibition: #techstyle
15 of the Best Designs Merging Fashion and Technology
Chameleon Clothing Adapts to Its Environment

Jon:
Welcome to episode 143 of The Digital Life, a show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.

Dirk:
Hey, Jon. You’re looking pretty sharp over there today.

Jon:
Thanks. I try. That’s a wonderful way of indicating that we’re going to be talking about clothing today and the intersection of technology, specifically with clothing as a part of our ongoing trend spotting discussions on the podcast. Let’s jump right into that.

We’re aware that clothing is one of the original technologies. Along with fire, clothing has been instrumental to man’s existence from the very beginning. Clothing protects our bodies, whether you start off with a bear skin or more refined textiles over time. The clothing and textile industries have been tied closely to previously revolutions in technology, in particular, the first industrial revolution which really centered on the textile industry. In our area, in the Boston area, it drove commerce to new heights. I always find it interesting, we don’t talk about it as technology, but if you think about it, the Roman armies, for instance, had great advantage over their counterparts because they had great clothing, including sandals which protected their feet on long marches and enabled them to cover more distance and dominate. Their armies could dominate other armies because of their technology and specifically sandals were apart of that.

As we’re looking ahead the evolution of clothing and innovation of clothing, down the road from us is the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and they’re having what looks like a wonderful and interesting exhibit called Techstyle. I’ll spell that out for you because it’s not textile as you would think but Techstyle. It’s #T-E-C-H-S-T-Y-L-E.

Dirk:
They’re so clever, Jon.

Jon:
They are. They’re more clever than me. That’s running very soon. It starts on March 6 then goes through July 10. I’m going to head down there because it has all sorts of interesting pieces showing how emerging technology is creating innovation in the fashion industry, whether that’s clothes that respond to the environment, and in some ways kind of silly stuff like dresses that can tweet, I don’t know if we need that, or garments that maybe come off the 3D printer and you can wear them. Those are all different aspects of technology and clothing.

It raises for us, as designers and technologists, an interesting question which is — How do we interact with our clothing? We’ve sort of come to a certain point where, at least for me, clothing is functional and I don’t interact with it much other than to put it on in the morning and take it off at night when I get into my pajamas. There’s a whole range of interesting things you can do with clothing. If you’re a chemist, there are all sorts of inks that you can put into clothing that might respond to particular environmental factors. I know that for older folks, there’s clothing that can provide certain kinds of support and therapy for areas of the body that no longer work the way that they used to. There’s interesting new work in bio-sensors. You could have clothing that indicated if you were exerting too much pressure on your back and your back was going to give out.

Dirk:
What happens to that when it goes in the wash, Jon?

Jon:
Yeah. That’s an excellent question because most of this stuff is largely in what I would call the prototype phase, not really the sort of clothing you can buy off the rack. This is changing and changing quickly, but we’re still in that nascent period where anything is possible but who knows how much of it is likely.

Dirk:
Yeah. I mean, the practical constraint is if it touches your body directly, it’s got to be able to go in the laundry. It’s got to be able to get washed with soap and water and tussle through this difficult process. We sure as hell aren’t going to be carefully hand washing our clothes so that it can have proper digital affordances. It’s interesting it’s that very low tech technology that is the gating factor for a lot of the potential that these wide-eyed clothing ideas have.

Jon:
Right. I know that for instance, MC10, which is another tech company that has some Boston roots, has partnered with athletic apparel makers in various ways to enhance athletic analytics and also, I believe, to figure out when folks might be subject to concussions. Built into helmets, built into sensor technology, built into athletic garments. The use case there, if you’re a professional athlete, maybe you can afford to have somebody who can very carefully take care of your garments after you’ve worn them or perhaps they can make enough of them and who cares what it cost in those use cases. For the practical, everyday, what is the iPhone of clothing? What’s that next step of wearables? I’m no longer looking at my Fitbit or my watch, instead, it’s sort of built into my clothes somehow. What is the killer app for clothing? I don’t know because of that ruggidization. I mean, there’s all sorts of instructions that drive me nuts just on our regular clothes. They have to be tumble dried low or use some special fabric softener or whatever the heck. You can’t use this detergent with the kid’s clothing or you can’t use that detergent with something else. It’s enough to drive you batshit just the way it is now, let alone like, “Oh no. I put my special shirt that hooks up to my phone and my computer. That went in the laundry and now I’m out $300 or something because I dried it wrong.”

Dirk:
That’s exactly right. As we go through our normal days, we want things to be simple. I mean, there was a big trend toward green laundry detergent in the past, things that are more eco-friendly, which my family was very excited about and we were looking forward to trying but it didn’t work as well, didn’t get your stuff as cleaned, kind of sucked. Pretty quick, you’re back to the Tide, you’re back to the good old Proctor and Gamble, going back a hundred plus years.

You know, now we have this new equation where you need the special detergent for your dignified wacky clothes. Nobody’s going to do that. I don’t want to do that. You know, clothes are such the wrong delivery method for this stuff. Using your clothes and the proximity to your body to surface metrics about yourself, there’s something interesting there, not something interesting that would, in my opinion, unless you’re a professional athlete or some special corner case, justify completely complicating and changing your laundry workflow. At least maybe there’s something interesting there.

A lot of it strikes me as being like the early internet refrigerators where there’s a little screen on the refrigerator where you can get on a web browser and muck around. What are you going to bend over in front of your refrigerator? It’s nonsense. I think a lot of the to-do around fashion technology and how it hooks into the digital life today is just nonsense. Jon, one of the sort of technology paths that we’ve talked about and I know interests both you and I are cyborgism. The fact of the matter is that almost everything interesting that’s happening there is being driven by the disabled community. It’s being driven by people who are not able to function the “normal” way, whatever the hell that means, so they are incentivized for quality of life, for a lot of different reasons, to spend the money, spend the time, and invest themselves in something that, while remarkable, is clumsy and expensive and doesn’t make a lot of sense for the average Joe you and me. That will change. Cyborgism will become a much more integrated part of the everyday life, but that’s a ways down the road. I think this fashion technology stuff falls into that same bucket. Some of it’s interesting. Some of it super silly. It’s really not going to matter to us in ways beyond mere novelty for a really long time.

Jon:
I agree with the general sentiment. I will say there is a part of me that is very much attracted to the novelty part, at least of the couture side of this that I’ve seen. There’s an example of Lauren Bowker who is a textile designer who created this wonderful jacket that is infused with this chemical that is responsive to friction. Depending on what the environment is around you, the jacket changes color. Albeit it’s not gated to you, per say, but to the kind of friction that it’s experiencing. If the wind blows on it, it looks one set of colors. If it rubs up against a wall or something, there’s another set of colors.

Dirk:
If you’re on a crowded subway platform, it just screams, “My god. Get me the hell out of here.”

Jon:
Yeah. Exactly. This is part of a Lauren Bowker’s Unseen collection, which is available online and she has a whole variety of things that she’s infused with this chemical so you can get bags that do this, wallets and things like that.

Dirk:
Pretty affordable, I’m assuming. Like your average Target shopper could go and buy their wardrobe there, I’m guessing.

Jon:
You know, there wasn’t any … I didn’t see the pricing on the site.

Dirk:
Oh dear. We know what that means.

Jon:
I would guess maybe it’s not affordable for your average Joe. The magicalness of that, the uniqueness, the fantastical, that speaks to me in so far as that sparks my imagination. If that were within the realm of affordability, that might be something I would treat myself to perhaps.

Dirk:
Fair enough. Fair enough. To me, it’s just a novelty. Push back on this because this might be different for you. For me, the first few times I saw people wearing it, “Oh, that’s cool.” The first time I saw it go green, “Oh, green. That’s neat.” After it’s been out for a year and it’s been around, I don’t care. At some point, it might even become pollution that it’s getting my attention. I’m having to look left and right as these different colors are firing around me. It seems like just pure novelty. It might be worth hundreds or thousands of dollars to try it out and laugh have people look at you and think you’re cool for a little while but then what?

Jon:
That’s always a driver for me. Hopefully people will think I’m cool for a little while. No, no, no. Seriously. I think it’s remarkable for all those reasons that you said, but from a practical standpoint, it’s probably there isn’t a good reason to have that. It’s more delightful. Something that you’d wear for a night out, something that makes you feel special. Technology for the sake of delight, which is not the worst of use of technology because we certainly use it for all kinds of other reasons associated with sociological reasons, to feel connected to other folks, to feel like you’re keeping up with the Jones, whatever that is. Just buying something for the sake of delight seems okay to me.

Dirk:
Here’s a template, Jon. I don’t know what year it was. I’m going to guess it was the year 2000. There was some year during which, I don’t even remember if technology is the right word, but they began having on New Years Eve glasses you put on with the year 2000. The two middle zeros were your eyes, which of course makes a lot of sense. That marched on every year. 2001, 2002, every year. Then, you have these glasses with the big two middle. Guess what. When 2010 came, they didn’t shitcan the design. Now, you’ve got these backward ass weird glasses trying to jam these funky numbers into the same four factor. 2011, 2012, 2013, you have a lot of goofballs running around something that is sort of objectively stylishly insane that is just this vestige from what was once sort of a novel cute fun thing. The exact manifestation of how the Unseen collection is going to evolve, that type of technology, I can’t say, but I think it’s far more likely to go down the path of stupidity that we so often get in our trendy consumer products then continuing to evolve in thoughtful, meaningful, and sustainable ways.

Jon:
Right. I think ultimately it would be a shame to not explore these areas. I agree. There is not always the end game that will be as practical as the jeans that we wear everyday but I love the experimentation and like I said, the focus on delight. I mean, there’s too few delightful things coming out of the technological world, in my opinion, so anything that’s focused on delighting users is okay by me.

Dirk:
If you have the money and it will give you pleasure, then by all means, but from the purpose of this show, trying to think about it from sort of a bigger tableau.

Jon:
Fair enough.

Dirk:
I hope you get some joy from it. I think it would be lovely. I mean that.

Jon:
Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com. That’s just one L The Digital Life. Go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett. That’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios which you can check out at goinvo.com, that’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com. Dirk?

Dirk:
You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer, that’s at D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R or can email me dirk@goinvo.com.

Jon:
That’s it for episode 143 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett and we’ll see you next time.

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