The Internet of Things, flexible electronics, mass customization, augmentation, bionics and prosthetics, shape memory and programmable materials, sports devices and the Apple Watch. All these trendy tag terms – so different from each other – are somehow described and defined by and contained within the general idea of wearables. But what exactly are wearable technologies – or “wearables” for short?
The IN(3D)USTRY congress in Barcelona asked Noumena, the design studio founded in the Catalan capital of design and manufacturing by Aldo Sollazzo, to provide an answer to the question during the 2017 edition held in early October. The result was the Reshape competition, where a number of industry experts and designers judged and evaluated dozens of wearable technology concepts submitted by designers from all over the world.
Wearables As Materials
The Reshape 17 Programmable Skins Competition was based on the idea that “wearables are becoming an active, supplemental skin that not only protects our body but also facilitate functions such as growth, movement, respiration and nutrition or rehabilitate the environment.” Wearables are thus seen as becoming a new medium, regulating the relationship between the human body and its surrounding. As such, they can collect and exchange information producing dynamic outputs.”
“In exploring these ideas, we went beyond ubiquitous computing, towards integrated and holistic strategies, with the objective to move beyond electronics, in favor of programmable materials,” Aldo Sollazzo explained.
Aldo’s vision – supported by efforts both within IN(3D)USTRY and by the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Barcelona – focuses very much on the material and the science behind it in order to provide wearable items with specific properties and capabilities. In this case, 3D printing is seen mainly as an ideal process to assemble and process these advanced metamaterials.
Several of the submitted projects explored advanced materials and used different 3D printing technologies – filament extrusion, powder bed fusion or even customized 3D printed molds to create custom shapes for silicon-like materials – to assemble the final concepts. The winning concept was the one created by a duo of Barcelona based designers who created a spinal cord orthotic augmentation.
Wearables As Technology
While many agree that materials science will play an integral part in the full actualization of wearable technology, current exploration also focuses very much on finding non-intrusive approaches for the integration of electronics in wearable products.
Among the leading pioneers in this field is Anouk Wipprecht, who has reached global notoriety for a collection of interactive dresses produced as explorative concepts, working with top global brands such as Autodesk, Audi and Swarovski. From the 3D printed Smoke Dress – which releases smoke under certain conditions – to her Spider Dress – which reacts when people get too close, Wipprecht has always made electronics a fundamental element of her wearable technology exploration. Not just to react but also to entertains, such as in the Cocktail Dress, which robotically serves drinks at parties.
“As an electronics engineer, I am fascinated by introducing electronics in my wearable concepts especially through the use of open source approaches which enable global communities to collaborate and improve the designs,” Anouk told me when we met after her presentation at the Meet the Medica Guru at Milan’s Triennale Design Museum.
Using the latest advancement in accessible technology and in 3D printing, Wipprecht has been working on making the presence of electronics in wearable items less intrusive. This was the focus of her work on devising systems for children to undergo MRI exams using friendly looking, more comfortable “unicorn hats”, custom 3D printed to fit their heads.
Wearables As Fashion
Narrowing down and harnessing what technology can do for the fashion industry in terms of design and creativity is the scope of a new online course produced by MoMA, NYC’s modern art museum, together with design collective threeASFOUR.
The course focuses on a selection of more than 70 garments and accessories from around the world, ranging from kente cloth to jeans to 3D printed dresses. Through these garments, participants are going to look closely at what we wear, why we wear it, how it’s made, and what it means. Contributions will come from a range of designers, makers, historians, and others working with clothing every day—and, in some cases, reinventing it for the future. Studio visits, interviews, and other resources introduce the history and development of each garment and their changing uses, meanings, and impact over time.
When it comes to consumer products like fashion and clothing, however, the scope of what we refer to as “wearables” is huge. Today it includes everything from a Smart Watch to the failed Google Glass project or, more recently, the Snapchat Spectacles. These, however, are not truly wearable products as they integrate electronics into standard, rigid enclosures.
One of the primary limitations in integrating electronics in a non-intrusive way within comfortable clothes and accessories is that electronic circuits today – even printed ones – are not flexible. That is changing with the emergence of new materials and 3D printing technologies such as Nano Dimension’s and Voxel8’s but the road ahead is a still a long one. Until then, wearable technology can still work for augmentation and as a support for people with disabilities.
Wearables As Consumer Electronics
Working with established companies and organization as well as startups, Paul Sohi has acquired a unique experience in the field of wearable technologies. As a Fusion 360 evangelist, a lot of his work goes into designing products that leverage the latest technological trends. Sohi’s latest work focuses primarily on wearable technologies, intended as technologies that can enhance both the product’s customization and wearer’s abilities.
Sohi, who was a judge for the Reshape competition, feels that 3D printing is going to provide new solutions agrees that 3D printing will contribute to making wearable technology products more accessible and feasible but also highlights that the path toward mass production is still long.
“We’re still largely figuring out what we want from it. Two years ago there was a lot of talk about IoT but we are only starting to see the first truly useful applications now: it’s about providing deeper analytical information to make better products and offer better experiences. With wearables, we are still in that early stage where it is an exciting concept and I’m really excited to see what it is going to evolve into. I’m personally hoping to see a lot of really cool medical applications.”
Wearables as Mobility Devices
Medical and prosthetic applications are likely going to play a major part in these early years of wearable technology. Sohi is working on a bionics project which integrates AI into a prosthetic arm in order to improve dexterity over time. If you can treat a prosthetic as a wearable, even if it’s just a socket, you can start to learn how the body changes and how the amputated limb is changing in the socket. Sohi agrees that this is going to give us information on how to build better prosthetic devices for each person.
Another fascinating application of wearable technology is in the production of exoskeletons finalized at replacing wheelchairs. Thinking of a wheelchair as a wearable device instead of a mobility device opens up a whole new range of possibilities. A startup called Disrupt Disability has been working on taking this concept to market.
“[Disrupt Disability’s] is of the most interesting projects I’ve seen recently – says Sohi. We tend to think of wheelchairs as a mobility devices but the reality is that for someone who needs a wheelchair, this is essentially an extension of their body.”
Some progress has been made in printable electronics but much remains to be done. Issues include the fact that integrated electronics mean products that are made of a single component and thus cannot be repaired. This may be a benefit for space applications, where repairs are virtually impossible but are not ideal for consumer products undergoing stresses and intense use.
“Some of the most interesting applications for wearable, smart technology have begun to appear in sport applications and devices,” Sohi concludes, “and it is amazing how useful they can be in terms of customizing and optimizing workouts, however it will still take a long time before these applications can truly be integrated into clothes and non-intrusive flexible devices.”
When that happens – and 3D printing technologies will have evolved into real mass customization production systems – we will have a true explosion of wearable technology products.