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'Wearables' combine fashion, high-tech

The Media Laboratory reached new frontiers of funky techno-chic with Wearables, a day-long inquiry into computers as clothing and clothing that computes.

The October 15 event began with a symposium at Kresge Auditorium and culminated in "Beauty and the Bits," a fashion show and open house at the Media Lab.

Leonard Nimoy, actor, director and Star Trek alumnus, served as host and master of ceremonies. President Charles M. Vest and Nicholas Negroponte, the Jerome B. Wiesner Professor of Media Arts and Sciences (MAS) and director of the Media Lab, greeted the capacity crowd at Kresge. They were followed by Kazuhiko Nishi, president of ASCII Corp., a major sponsor of the event in honor of the firm's 20th anniversary.

"In the beginning, the Media Lab did things that were thought by many to be all icing and no cake, but these things turned out to be the cake," Professor Negroponte commented in his opening remarks. "Now one of my jobs is to make sure that the Lab continues to work on that lunatic fringe."

Wearables began with a "Body Electric" session, which featured Alex Pentland, the Toshiba Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, whose research focuses on perceptual intelligence, and Rosalind Picard, the NEC Career Development Professor of Computers and Communications, who conducts research on affective computing.

Professor Pentland's presentation included a comprehensive -- and often humorous -- overview of wearables through history. Professor Picard gave a tour through the Media Lab's current "wearables closet," stressing two basic themes: wearable computing that augments human abilities, and affective computing that smooths the human-computer interface by giving computers the capability to react to human emotions such as frustration or stress.

The second session featured a "Ready to Ware" panel, hosted by Joseph Jacobson, assistant professor of MAS. Speakers included Andrew Allen, former NASA astronaut and president of FIRST Foundation; Sylvia Earle, founder and chairman of Deep Ocean Exploration and Research, Inc.; IBM Fellow Ted Selker; Jim Page, vice president of business development for FLEX Paging, Motorola Inc.; and John Wyatt, professor of electrical engineering and computer science. Mr. Allen and Ms. Earle focused on wearables for the extreme environments of space and deep ocean explorations. Professor Wyatt previewed "implanted" wearables by describing the Retinal Implant Project.

The first afternoon session, "Wear Ware Where?" featured Media Laboratory professors Michael Hawley, the Alex Dreyfoos Jr. '54 Career Development Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, and Neil Gershenfeld, associate professor of MAS. Professors Hawley and Gershenfeld showed how wearables can be incorporated into everyday life, from outfitting an online marathon runner, to using intra-body signaling mechanisms to turn the human body into a communications channel.

In the final session, "Be Wear," Media Laboratory Professor Marvin Minsky hosted science fiction writers Gregory Benford, Frederik Pohl and Vernor Vinge.

To emphasize the day's theme, each of the event's 1,400 attendees was given a Swatch-in-a-shirt-cuff, heralding both the symposium and the October 16 arrival at MIT of Nicolas Hayek, head of Swatch AG. Mr. Hayek spoke on "Engineering and Marketing the Art on Your Sleeve."

At the "Beauty and the Bits" fashion show, some 40 unique styles, professionally modeled to a pounding neo-disco beat, mixed high fashion, science fiction and ultra-high tech. A bank of unblinking television cameras, including those from ABC's Nightline, the BBC and RTL (German television), recorded the event. Print media in attendance included The Boston Globe, The New York Times, Fortune, Business Week and Newsweek.

The Wearables outfits arose from collaborations between Media Lab researchers and students from four prestigious design schools: the Parsons School of Design in New York, Domus in Milan, Creapole in Paris and Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo.

A narrative read aloud during the show by graduate student Kevin Brooks placed each outfit on a character in years ranging from 1999 to 2037. The show, directed by Derek Lockwood, was produced by Linda Lowe, project coordinator for the Media Lab's Things That Think Consortium, and Greg Tucker, the Lab's facility manager.

Wearable visionary styles unified an individual's work, travel, entertainment, communication and personal safety needs. Clothing mostly skipped the robo-aesthetic, leaning towards softer, body-skimming, sometimes body-responsive shapes.

The hardest-edged design opened the show. Red Roadster (for the year 2013) was a nail-polish-red vinyl suit with a hammerhead-shaped "picture hat." The hat was designed to contain a solar array for powering a cell phone; a brooch contained a navigational system, and knee pads could inflate to air bags.

A Reporter's Ensemble (2027) combined a sleek jumpsuit accessorized by a monocle with a display, speaker, and microphone and gloves to house a camera and a keyboard. Similarly, NEX (2034), a Nehru-collared pantsuit, highlighted a system that could include a GPS unit, wireless Internet modem, microphone on the collar, and a sleeve-held controller pad with joystick and handy sensitive pen for sketching ideas.

Two designs for the visually impaired added a humanitarian note. The Vision Suit, complete with sonar grommets that vibrate as they detect objects, and a Braille display connected to a GPS system, had a "finger scanner" to translate bar codes into audio or Braille. Accessor-eyes (year 2017) offered earrings designed to act as microphones and speakers, a ring that scans for characters and then translates them into Braille, and an arm piece equipped with GPS.

In keeping with both the techno-revels and the humanitarian aspects were a spiny court jester's hat (Van and WearASL, 2017) designed to translate American Sign Language (ASL) into speech, and a backpack that coordinates with the spiny hat to translate ASL into speech and speech into Braille.

A spiny coat of many quills, Empathic Fabric (year 2013), contrasted with The Living Knit (year 2021), a soft, skimpy sheath.

Encouraged by Professor Pentland, Media Lab student researchers spoke directly with print, radio and TV reporters following an afternoon walk-through of the Wearables fashion show. This group included graduate students Thad Starner, dressed as the Artful Dodger in top hat, striped suit and glasses-cum-video-display, and Jocelyn Reisberg in "expression glasses."

Graduate student Jennifer Healey wore "Biosensors" resembling a headset with silver face paint. "Biosensors" noted changes in her skin and made CD selections accordingly. "If I'm calm, it will play 'Scarborough Fair.' If my skin is in a high state of arousal, it will play 10,000 Maniacs," she said.

Several other graduate students, including Maggie Orth, Joshua Strickon, Josh Smith, Rehmi Post and Sumit Basu, and undergraduate researcher Emily Cooper, wore an ultra-cool Musical Jack-et, a commercially appealing message from the cyberfunk frontier. The Musical Jacket is an ordinary Levi jacket, transformed into a musical instrument complete with keyboard, MIDI synthesizer and mini-speakers, by students in the Opera of the Future and Physics and Media Groups at the Media Lab.

The jacket had two added elements: an embroidered keyboard over the left pocket and a synthesizer pin resembling a large flat leaf. When the keyboard, made of mildly conductive thread, is touched, it sends a signal to the synthesizer, which causes the jacket's pocket speakers to emit variations on house dance music.

In addition to ASCII Corp., other Media Lab sponsors who contributed to the event include: Becton Dickinson and Co., Brother Industries, Ltd., Duracell, The LEGO Group, Levi Strauss & Co., Lord Corp., MasterCard International, Storage Technology Corp., Swatch AG and 3M Corp.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 22, 1997.

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