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Interactive fashion lets costumers wear devices on their sleeves

Does this computer come in a Size 6?

By Contributor for The Christian Science Monitor / February 4, 2009

Soft wear: Designer Anke Loh’s ‘Dressing Light’ collection weaves optical fibers and LED lights into dresses.

Courtesy of James Prinz/Anke Loh

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Chicago

The solar panel in your winter coat warms your back. An LED light on your skirt warns passers-by to give you room on the sidewalk. The display on your eyeglasses flashes the temperature after you slip them on.

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Already hanging in designers’ studios, these curious clothes may soon make their way into America’s wardrobe. Interactive fashion, the intersection of electronics and apparel, is a relatively new school of design. Engineers and couturiers, two parties that previously knew little about each other, are locked in intense collaborations today to reshape the role clothing plays in daily life.

As modern culture embraces mobile phones in our pockets, Bluetooth headsets in our ears, and Nike odometers in our shoes, the logical next step is wearing devices on our sleeves, says Tiffany Holmes, chair of the art and technology department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the few schools in the United States that offers classes on wearable technology.

“Fashion is about the latest trends and styles, so it really makes a lot of sense this is happening now,” she says.
As Ms. Holmes sees it, with young consumers wearing white headphones as often as earrings, they will soon require apparel to streamline their digital needs.

“One of the things about Western culture is, if we have access to information that is deliverable to our bodies, we will want that,” says Holmes. “Changes in clothing are not that far off.”

Interactive fashion has been around for as long as kids’ shoes came with blinking lights in their soles and sportswear featured hidden pockets for music players.

Newer examples include a T-shirt from thinkgeek.com that detects nearby wireless Internet signals. The logo on the front of the shirt changes as Wi-Fi connection strength waxes and wanes.

But all of these were destined to be marketplace novelties until technology shrunk. While the Wi-Fi T-shirt wants you to tuck a AAA battery box under your belt, new computer chips with the dimensions of a fingernail are now tailor-made for textiles.

For older consumers who grew up with rabbit ears atop their giant Zenith TVs, the idea of interacting with your favorite pair of pants may seem hard to swallow. But to consumers who regularly stream YouTube clips on their iPhones, the evolution of digital-ready clothing is not so far-fetched.

“You’re going to see more clothes marketed to the younger generation because the technology is so much a part of their life that fashion needs to reflect that,” says Beth Wilson, a writer for Women’s Wear Daily.

While the applications remain in the infancy stage, interest in the fashion community is building as designers see this field as a sort of last chance to revolutionize their industry.

Replacing threads with cords, however, requires some serious rethinking. Electronicsmakers such as Philips, Bluetooth, Motorola, and Apple are funding research projects to discover, for instance, just how much optical fiber can be sewn into a sweater before it stops feeling like a sweater. Reevaluating comfort against function is a chief concern of this trend.

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