A visitor to Fashion Week in New York City will see a multitude of designs purposely constructed to project beauty and novelty. When MICA students think of fashion, however, the garments they envision have deeper meaning. Nowhere is this truer than in the Smart Textiles Design course jointly offered by MICA and Johns Hopkins University. Designers are bringing forth inventive attire that has the potential to literally transform the lives of the wearers and those they interact with.
The Smart Textiles Design course is led by seasoned instructors, including MICA’s Annet Couwenberg, past Fiber Department chair, and James Rouvelle, chair of the Interaction Design and Art Department. Its aim is to help students see the possibilities of wearable technology. This past year, students worked with faculty and mentors from a range of industries to integrate digital materials with fiber through sewing, weaving, machine embroidery, and structural design. The resulting academic exploration was a unique mixture of fabrication, mechanical engineering, and computer science and involved a dizzying array of technology—skin sensors, fiber optics, resistors, potentiometers, capacitors, diodes, lithium ion batteries, and conductive thread.
The students in the 2011 course produced inventions with applications that may prove to be broader than even their experience and perspective allowed them to envision. MICA’s Anna Obikane and Sun-Duck “Sunny” Oh, for example, collectively lived in Tokyo, Seoul, Europe (including Austria), Yugoslavia, and Michigan while growing up. They utilized the experiences gained from moving around to inform their Urban Aliens creation, a device that addresses feelings of isolation by emitting sounds when a friend is near. The potential application of the project is huge. For instance, parents might use the technology to find lost children in a crowded place.
Junior Peter Ebeid-Atalla's Midi-Puppet is a glove that uses sensors and computer software to help an artist manage a performance from on-stage by controlling the sound with one finger, lights with another, and digital effects with still another. MICA student Tabor Barranti's goal is to develop clothing that can completely change color with the touch of a button, and senior Veronika Olsen's Relaxet line helps people control stress, with enormous implications for health and wellness.
The clothing uses skin sensors to detect stress, Veronika says, and can emit auditorily opposite bioneural tones that force the body to relax as the brain instinctively works to find a balance between the sounds. In another application, Relaxet’s clothing can change color to alert caregivers when autistic children begin to feel uncomfortable.
The work of the students has already sparked international interest, shown during a recent Voice of America (VOA) spotlight on the class.
“Technology and gadgets are getting smaller,” Couwenberg told VOA, “and that will have a tremendous influence on where art and technology and fashion are going to meet.”