August 25, 2004
The Tallinn portion of the ISEA conference was focused on wearable computing. Although I didn’t attend many of the panel sessions on this topic, my general impression from the keynote, from the exhibition, and from the runway of the fashion show at Club Bon Bon in Estonia is that wearable computing has a long way to go. It seems that as a culture, we have not yet worked out how (or if) we want computers to function in our clothing. Another problem with wearable computing is that the majority of current funding for the technology comes from either a) the military-industrial complex or b) the fashion industry. This makes sense, but the sources of funding seem to constrict the imagination of designers in a variety of ways. The military wants wearable computing that will make for better soldiers, that will make for safer military service and better killing machines. The fashion industry is by its nature interested in disposable objects, in making things that serve an aesthetic purpose of limited duration.
Joanna Berzowska, Assistant Professor of Design and Computational Art at Concordia University, and of XS Labs and International Fashion Machines, gave the conference a good introduction to the current state of the art in wearable computing. She described the work that’s been done at the MIT Media Lab for a number of words, most notably by Steve Mann. Much of the work by Mann and others is centered on the idea of Remembrance Agents — wearable devices meant to extend the powers of fallible human memory by recording and archiving various aspects of the user’s experience. In Mann’s case, this means recording virtually every experience of his waking life. This version of wearable computing involves a lot of hardware — camera, heads-up displays, keyboards you can twiddle with one hand, etc. Smart remembrance agents would not only record, but also sort experience; they could for instance look up the person to whom you were talking on the Web, create a contact in your organizer program with their picture, and pull up any references you’ve made to them in your computer’s files. While this sort of wearable computing has some promise, currently available technologies are cumbersome. There’s also an argument to be made that you may not want to be informed of every post your conversation partner has ever made to a newsgroup as you’re talking to him or her. A vision of the world in which everyone walking down the street is constantly performing background checks on everyone else is more than a bit disturbing.
In her own work Berzowska is interested in softening the hard-edged world of wearable computing. She said that Mann describes his get-up as a building made for one inhabitant, and that she herself wants to resist that idea. She would like to use technology in clothing in a way that keeps the clothes intimate and flexible. Her answer to the idea of Remembrance Agents, for instance, includes an “Intimate Memory” outfit that leaves a visible marker of intimacy events such as whispering, touching, and groping. She also does a lot of work with heat-sensitive materials that change color or pattern in response to changes in body temperature.
Berzowska said that she felt that some most important questions have not been asked in wearable technology, such as why and how we want to disguise/reveal/enhance ourselves. She cited a talk given at SIGGRAPH by Bruce Sterling in which he described an evolution of technology.
Artifacts: In the first stage, hunter/gathers used tools crafted by hand.
Machines: The Industrial revolution was fueled by machines to augment or replace physical labor.
Products: In the modern era, technology has been fueled by technology as products to enable the military-industrial complex and consumers in the conduct of everyday domestic life.
Gizmos: With the expansion of wealth in modern industrialized societies, open-ended technological commodities filter into everyday life. Technologies for leisure and for the sake of owning them.
Spimes: Objects that are user groups first, and objects second. Technologies that are services and not objects.
Although it was not entirely clear what Spimes might function as wearable computing, some of the prototype work that Berzowska and others showed offered clues. For instance, there were various types of inflatable/deflatable clothing, which in concept could provide the user with more personal space, by clearing an area, or more personal time, by immobilizing the user.
Much of the discussion around wearable computing is tied in some way to the idea of tracking. Berzowska pointed out that building RFID or other tracking technologies into clothing could be a mixed blessing. On one hand, such technologies might enable different kinds of personal filtering (perhaps singles at a cocktail party might want to access profiles of other available potential partners while moving through a physical space, or bloggers might want to hear a chime as they approach another blogger to compare notes, etc.) but there is an Orwellian flipside to this transparency, as the power of depicting one’s identity to the outside world (one historical function of clothing generally) is increasingly given over to a pervasive network. Berzowska attributed much of the interest in tracking in wearable computing to the fact that so much of the research is funded by military. She also said that she views the developments in military wearable computing with some ethical skepticism. While a cyber-soldier might be safer and more effective on the battlefield, the end result of such a well-equipped soldier might be unlevel battlefield, and could help to contribute to more war, rather than less, given that the loss of life for a technologically advanced superpower (say one with a unilateralist doctrine) would be less of a factor.
There are several clear divisions in the world of wearable computing. The fashion show in Tallinn made it clear that in the art world, technology is a fetish as much as it is an application. Much of the work shown on the runway seemed to be more about the idea of technology than about actually using it. Waifish models performed a kind of improvisation in velcro suits, sticking together and twitching around, as if being electrocuted by short circuits in their cyber-clothes. The CyberSM work of Stahl Stenslie made an appearance in the form of a dildonic device worn over the pelvis which pulsed in time to the (really awful) electronic music pumped over the loud speaker. Models strutted about wearing giant leather purses shaped like enormous breasts. Probably the most interesting piece in the show was “Medulla Intimata,” by Clutch. This work consisted of two pieces of video jewelry. The video shown on each small screen, worn on the chest of the user, changes in response to the stress-levels of the user as he or she has a conversation. Ultimately, the wearable computing fashion show seemed to have the same obsessions as the fashion world in general: a kind of naive conceptual art, youth, and eroticism.
Berzowska provided a great introduction to wearable computing, but I remain unconvinced that wearable computing, as it manifests itself in the art world, is much different from fashion with any other theme. A few of the works shown in the exhibition at the Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design were more conceptually compelling than the get-ups at Club Bon Bon. In addition to a pair of inflatable scream suits designed for people to vent their aggressions by slowly inflating each other via audio inputs, two other projects are of note. “Seven-Mile Boots,” a collaboration between the Finnish artist Laura Beloff and the Austrians Erich Berger and Martin Pichlmair, is a pair of boots that includes a sophisticated tech set-up and a wireless connection that moves through different channels of IRC as the user walks on the room, logging the walker into different chat roooms, and reading the conversations going on in them via amplifiers in the boots. “Saturday” by Sabrina Raaf included gloves outfitted with audio devices called “bone transducers” which the user could press to his or her temple, enabling the user to hear several conversations at once as they were remixed in the bones of the skull. The audio samples used were harvested by CB and walkie-talkies from conversations overheard one day in Hyde Park in Chicago. If nothing else, this piece won the “gee-whiz gizmo” prize for me. It’s a strange thing to press your hand to your forehead to hear multiple conversations being fed to some part of your head other than your ears.
Interesting art is possible in this medium. Both “Seven Mile Boots” and “Saturday” made use of both cutting edge technologies and powerful metaphors to create a fulfilling user experience. Perhaps more of that, and less CyberSM and Blade Runner fetish fashion, will make wearable computing a more intruiging sector of new media art world. My general sense is that right now the most advanced wearable computing is happening not on the runways or the art galleries, but by the order the Pentagon, and that it will be a long time before most of the technologies involved filter down to practical or aesthetic consumer use.