Clothing as an "attitude statement" is how designer and technologist Sangli Li, an MFA candidate in media design practices at Art Center College of Design, describes his interactive hat, a gorgeous, sculptural confection in black and white that would be at home on an Alexander McQueen runway or in a private box at the Kentucky Derby.
Li's creation is also a not-so-subtle communication device programmed to react to its wearer's responses to things such as loud noises and too-close talkers. It was part of a recent demonstration of wearable technology prototypes at Art Center's Pasadena campus.
"What if clothing could express the wearer's attitude without concern for social conventions?" asked Li, as the hat responded to a camera's flash by lowering part of its brim over the model's eyes, covered her ears when someone shouted at her and then created a larger barrier when another person moved in for an unwanted kiss.
"It's got personality and humor," Li said, "but it can be a bit naughty or arrogant or rude."
Fitbits and Google Glass are the tip of the iceberg. A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center said that 83% of more than 1,600 tech industry experts surveyed believe sophisticated, wearable technology will be the norm by 2025. Many of these items will be stylish with hardware, software and cloud-integrated ecologies that can serve the wearer in numerous ways.
Jenny Rodenhouse, also an MFA candidate at Art Center, gestured toward a demonstration that resembled the intimate setting of a nail salon.
Inspired by popular nail culture, Rodenhouse and design partner Kristina L. Ortega's "Pop-Up Sensor Nail Salon" featured a display of wildly eccentric manicure art. The designers imagine a near future in which manicurists and their customers will work together to plan and install decorative sensors that could respond to a wide variety of stimuli.
"Let's say a sensor on a nail would buzz when you reached for something you don't want," Ortega said. "One of our test subjects said she'd use them if she decided to quit smoking."
Inflatable shirts, reminiscent of a certain Seinfeld episode, were center stage in a humorously oddball demo that claimed users would, "feel the weight of a long-winded sentence." Big talkers blew up quickly. While the concept seemed far-fetched, the shirt's creators foresee the technology as a tool in therapeutic settings, such as conflict resolution and marriage counseling.
Wearable technology brings up the larger question of data security as well, an issue that a few of the MFA students addressed. The most accessible prototype was a backpack that could create a smoke screen, or personal cloud, that could scramble information or block a hacker. The gray canvas behemoth appeared impossibly clunky and hung awkwardly on the model's back, but one only has to remember just how large mobile phones used to be to visualize the possibilities.
Despite the whimsical nature of the Art Center prototypes, the concepts aim for a higher purpose. Developers and designers envision clothing and accessories that will be able to adapt to the behaviors and physical environments of the wearers. Imagine a sweater that could address and mitigate an allergic reaction, a dress that could determine air quality and then filter pollution or earrings that could act as geo-locators and summon help.
Li is already thinking way beyond his opinionated hat. He also presented a series of animated drawings of evening gowns that could be described as both elegant and defensive. Standouts included a snazzy sheath that transforms into layers of spikes if the wearer becomes alarmed and a diaphanous number constructed of fans that open as it senses the wearer's need for more personal space.
"It's an interesting aesthetic," Rodenhouse said of what the designers are trying to accomplish. "Our wearables are based in fashion, yet we're playing with that while exposing their function."