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loop reactive surfaces

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Rachel Wingfield makes amazingly beautiful electronic textiles. Under the name loop, she develops light emitting fabrics for the home that respond to their environment and facilitate visual communication.

Her research and resulting products aim to address big issues like seasonal affect disorder, sustainability, and the use of technology in the home. Digital Dawn (detail shown here) is a window covering that helps to maintain light levels in a room, responding to low light by increasing its own luminosity. Other pieces include a light-emitting bedspread that acts as an alarm clock, a tablecloth that displays where objects have rested for long periods of time, and wallpapers that light up according to noise levels or power consumption.

The intricacy and beauty of these textiles indicate deliberate and thoughtful attention to design. In Rachel's words, "Established notions of aesthetic and beauty do not have to be exchanged for function; therefore an organic interpretation is sought in opposition to the often clinical and futuristic shine of 'intelligent' materials."

Adidas has developed a running shoe that senses changes in surface conditions and running style and adjusts the amount of heel cushioning accordingly.

Technology analyst Rob Enderle was quoted in the NY Times, "Of all items of clothing, the shoe is a logical one to be a focus of wearable technology. Unlike articles of clothing that must be washed or cleaned, shoes present a more stable place to add useful electronics."

Washing is one challenge, but designing new interaction techniques for articles of clothing is another. The interface on the Adidas shoe consists of two buttons (one with a "+" and one with a "-") for adjusting the desired cushioning level. The symbols are ambiguous though. Does "+" mean more firm or more cushiony? There's also a row of five tiny LEDs that indicates the current setting. I've found that light patterns aren't always as easy to interpret as designers expect them to be, so hopefully the mapping is straightforward and has been tested with potential wearers.

I'm a little bothered that Adidas is planning on shipping the shoes with a CD-ROM to explain how to use them and change the batteries. Granted, people may initially need some extra help learning how to interact with computerized shoes, but ultimately these types of products need to be designed in a way that doesn't require extensive instructions.

The shoe, called the Adidas 1, is slated to come out in December with a price tag of $250.

LAKS, an Austrian-based watch company has several flash memory watches with USB cables integrated into their straps. They've also got a watch that doubles as an MP3 player. What's amazing and exciting is that LAKS has made an effort to make these watches attractive!

(As an aside, I have to say that I'm a bit leery about the headphones on the MP3 watch. LAKS points out that they're "long enough for tall people"(!), but I can't imagine not being annoyed by a cord that stretches from my wrist to my ear.)

Unfortunately, LAKS has totally missed their mark with their Baby Boom watch. Intended for use before, during and after pregnancy, this watch calculates a female's fertile days, indicates the current week of pregnancy and the baby's expected due date, estimates when the baby's heart starts beating, proposes 5000 baby names, saves lab values from your baby's doctor visits, and more. Assuming for a moment that all of these functions are really necessary on a watch, I would imagine that the design would be comparable to that of other watches in their Ladies collection. Ah no. Even in light gray, the Baby Boom watch looks like it was designed for a male triathlete. I have no doubt that males want to share in the joy of expected childbirth, but given the very female-oriented nature of this watch, the design is simply inconsiderate and wrong.

- Thanks to Jonny for showing me the Baby Boom watch

watches to watch

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Microsoft's MSN Direct service lets you get weather, stock prices, personal messages, appointment reminders, etc. on your watch. When I heard that Microsoft was teaming up with watch companies like Fossil on this project, I was hopeful that the watch designs might break the normal geek mold for techno gadgets like these, but the geek mold prevailed. Both the Microsoft and Fossil sites show pictures of attractive, rounded displays with a blue background and transparent plastic frame, but the watches for sale are limited to square gray displays with manly black wrist straps. And although style is a primary concern, the size of these watches is also prohibitive to anyone with small wrists (read: women).

When I see devices like this, I wonder if companies realize that they're alienating women and those who care about style, or if they just don't care. I understand that there are technical and financial considerations that product teams need to worry about, but I'd think they'd find their target markets increasing if more design options were available.

In any event, I think the watch is a natural fit for integration with the type of functionality that Microsoft is offering. The watch has been fully adopted by our culture and accepted into our personal body space -- other wearable devices will have to overcome these social and physical hurdles. Hopefully Microsoft has some other partners and design plans up their sleeves.

On the topic of watches, a couple of interesting companies, who obviously take themselves a little less seriously than Microsoft does, include:

Pimp Watches: The Trip the Light Fantastic tells time via 72 red, green and yellow LEDs. The photos on their site are hysterical, showing the watch next to cigars and other pimp-lifestyle accessories. (If you're offended by anime characters with large breasts, you may want to give the site a miss.)

OVO: The Decision Maker "is equipped with several functions that can point you in the right direction or make decisions for you." That is, it has the same functionality as your Magic 8 Ball. Very fun design.

- Thanks to Jordon for pointing me to Pimp Watches, via Cool Hunting.

Strangely familiar

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The Carnegie Museum of Art is currently hosting an exhibit called Strangely Familiar: Design and Everyday Life. From the exhibit brochure: "Design is a paradoxical presence in our lives, both invisible and conspicuous, familiar and strange. It surrounds us but fades from view, becomes second nature yet remains seemingly unknowable. Broadly conceived as the world of human-made artifacts, design is literally everywhere. Despite this ubiquity, we seldom experience objects, messages, and spaces to provoke deeper questions about how we choose to live..."

The projects in Strangely Familiar rethink the traditional role of design in everyday life. A few are particularly relevant to the topics of fashion and technology.

The Transformables line of clothing from C.P. Company consists of protective rain garments that transform into items such as a tent, kite, or inflatable armchair. (To view the line, click through their homepage to the archive.)

From the Fortune Cookies design group comes Felt 12x12, small gray felt squares that consumers can combine in ways that suit their own needs or styles. The group believes that "a designer's role in society is to create a framework, within which consumers can define shape and form for themselves." Watch their movie and see creations that range from aprons and hats to hot dog holders.

The Placebo Project is an investigation into people's attitudes towards electromagnetic fields. The Nipple Chair has two protrusions in the back that vibrate when the chair is in an electromagnetic field. The 25 compasses set into the top of the Compass Table spin when a cell phone is placed on it. The Electro-draught Excluder, though it looks like it might protect you from electromagnetic fields, actually does nothing but induce strange behavior as you try to hide behind it.

If you're not able to experience this fantastic exhibit in person, buy the book.

digital bracelet

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This spring I bought a Nike watch. I love its clean design and its translucent black body with lime green accents. I also love that there's a little screen saver-esqe animation that pops up from time to time. But most of all I love how it attaches to my wrist -- two flexible arms reach around and cling to my wrist with soft plastic pads. I justified my purchase by telling myself that the design and new attachment style were important innovations for a 100-year-old wearable device.

I just found out this morning that this watch won a silver medal in the consumer products division of the 2003 Industrial Design Excellence Awards. The Presto Digital Bracelet, as it's called, has "an ergonomic fit that is defined by three points of contact with the wrist and is made of lightweight polymer to provide flexibility and expansion. ... Ergonomic fit and polymer create a watch the user forgets they are wearing." Oh yes.

I just saw an ad for Gateway flat panel LCD TVs. It said, "Your big fat bloated TV went out of fashion with, well, big fat bloated TVs."

In The End of Fashion, Teri Agins says, "fashion, by definition is ephemeral and elusive, a target that keeps moving. ... Traditionally, the fashion system has revolved around the imperative of planned obsolescence." I doubt that original developers of CRTs were evilly plotting the introduction of LCDs 50 years later, though that's not to say that LCD manufacturers are above exploiting what now looks and feels like a dated technology.

Agins also says, "Today, a designerís creativity expresses itself more than ever in the marketing rather than in the actual clothes. Ö In a sense, fashion has returned to its roots: selling image. Image is the form and marketing is the function." Technology companies can play this game too. Apple's Think Different campaign from a few years back is a perfect example of this, as is Microsoft's pairing of Madonna and XP.

Such emphasis on design and marketing may not be surprising from companies that target the general public, but even Sun's mid- and high-end servers are designed with pretty purple details that remind me of running shoes.

Exponential growth in performance means that systems from six months ago are on their way to the junk heap anyway. Their longevity will only decrease as they are more frequently designed and used as fashion pieces. Have last season's iPod or a cell phone that is too large? Better get shopping!

What will the market look like when these devices are physically integrated into clothing?

wear your seat

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Oliver Peyricot has created a wearable chair. I'm not sure whether you can only wear it while sitting or if the seat is flexible so that you can also wear it while standing/moving. A rough translation of the product description from the babel fish --

"Comfort with nearest: self-service design to be related to oneself, more piece of furniture that one wears, the WYS (Wear Your Seat) settles like a seat and threads like a prosthesis. Maintained by a rigid file (with height of lumbar), it offers a comfort tender and measured to each part of the back, sitting or upright."

Peyricot also has also developed Body Props, several ergonomic forms intended to support the body while resting on the floor. His attention to human form reminds me of the Design for Wearability work done at CMU several years ago.

- seen in Clear magazine, vol III issue 3

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