Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Wearable

Joey gave a really good talk today on the current status of wearable computing and reactive textiles. She mentioned that 90% of research in these areas is still being funded (directly and indirectly) by the US military, which reminded me of Abbate's Inventing the Internet and how it's easy to forget the provenance of much new technology, but it is not irrelevant.

For example, Sensatex "smart shirts" were originally developed at Georgia Tech with funding from the US military's 21st Century Land Warrior Program and DARPA. The shirt was first designed to sense a "discontinuity" or hole in the fabric indicating the site of a soldier's wound. The shirt would then communicate with central command to inform them of the location of the wound and thereby help them decide whether or not they needed to dispatch medical assistance. (I wonder what it said? Discontinuity .5 inches from heart left ventricle. No need to send assistance.?) Anyway, now the shirts are used to protect elderly people and children.

[Aside: FORCE XXI. The Army of 2000 and beyond. "It will require that everything be lightweight and miniaturized, and that soldiers be fully integrated into a digitized battlefield." And some may remember connections between Force XXI, Honeywell and oil refineries.]

When I first saw Joey give a presentation almost two years ago on her and Maggie Orth's work at International Fashion Machines I was stunned. For the first time I began to believe that we could design wearable technologies that honour what it means to be human and social. (I've always been turned off by virtual reality; working for years as an archaeologist taught me to value material culture.) And Joey is very good about reminding us Why We Need Things - following Csikszentmihalyi in History from Things (which also reminds me of one of my archaeology favourites, Learning from Things). She reminded me of C's points that objects serve as symbols of personal power and social status; as symbols of social relationships and connections; and, my favourite, as symbols of the continuity of self through time - of our involvement in the present, mementos of our past and projections of our future. Brilliant.

She talked about costuming as an entrenched cultural practice - I was reminded of Liz Goodman's demonstration of intimacy in costuming - and wearables as "second skin." Reactive fashion (or "softwear") works with the idea of changing our skin, our identity, our cultural context - of playing. But mostly I love that Joey begins with something that already works well - textiles - and that always already conjures protection, warmth, intimacy, identity ... After all, isn't clothing our oldest interface to the world, responsible, at least in part, for great loves and devastating wars? I doubt we could come up with something more *wearable* than clothes!

Anyway, it seems that electronic textiles are still technologically elusive - living more in SF and funding proposals than anywhere else. But my money is still on the good people working in soft computing. They're starting from the right place.

Also interesting today: CNET reports that "Applied Digital Solutions is hoping that Americans can be persuaded to implant RFID chips under their skin to identify themselves when going to a cash machine or in place of using a credit card."

VeriChip Corporation - Miniaturized, Implantable Identification Technology - helping you Get Chipped™!

Last month the US military declared that all suppliers must use RFID by 2005. "I think we'll get cooperation from industry," says Stewart. " Suppliers can not afford not to implement this technology."

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