Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the Lancaster University & Institute of Coding's online course, Introduction to Physical Computing. Join the course to learn more.

Ask the expert: Teddy Syed

Teddy Syed is a Post-Doctoral Researcher at Microsoft Research in their Research in Software Engineering (RiSE) Group. Recently he led Project Brookdale, a new platform for creating and prototyping wearables.

Here, Teddy provides his insight into the intersection of physical computing and wearable fashion.

From concepts to runways

Physical computing provides a unique intermediary between the digital and analog worlds that we find ourselves immersed in daily. Often, the way this is accomplished is by programmatically using elements of our everyday environment to control objects. Like the smart thermostat that you interact with and program based on the temperature in your apartment, you may have already encountered physical computing and not have realized it.

Given the persuasiveness of physical computing today, it is not surprising that wearables and fashion-tech is an area where it is rapidly growing, especially on avant-garde runways. These runways and the garments that appear on them are highly experimental, expressive and emphasize creativity. When electronics is introduced into the avant-garde world, the result is often something visually and technically amazing. For example, the dutch fashion-tech designer Anouk Wipprecht has created concept garments that incorporate elements of nature, such as smoke or spiders, even the human brain.

image of Anouk Wipprecht designDesign by Anouk Wipprecht

But what makes these garments like these unique is the physical computing involved to make these creative ideas possible. But why is physical computing important in fashion-tech and wearables? What are the approaches used today, and what are the challenges and opportunities moving forward?

While the space of modern fashion design has been around for several decades, comparatively wearables and fashion-tech are still relatively new. This means that while fashion itself has established practices and methods, supply chains and technologies itself, the physical integration of technology into the everyday shirt, dress or other garment is an ongoing challenge. As a result, sometimes the best way to overcome these challenges is to experiment with different concepts and technologies, as a means of uncovering practical lessons that can then be applied to everyday wearables and fashion. From LEDs that animate different colours and patterns, sensors that can read the body or the environment, to motors that vibrate or move, numerous types of technologies empower designers in the physical creation of the avant-garde garments that appear on runways around the world.

How is physical computing incorporated into wearables and fashion?

As you saw in the video in the last step, fashion designers are incredibly hands-on with the programmable aspects of fashion-tech garments. Everything from 3D printing, to programming, to soldering electronics is applicable when physically realising a concept. The entirety of this process is briefly summarised below:

Fashion tech design process Design process for fashion tech

(Click to expand)

In this process, physical computing often comes into play in the Experimentation and Runway phases of the process. A sketched concept needs technology explorations and experimentation before it is realised on a runway.

image of crochet garmentCrochet garment with LED lights triggered by accelerometer

What is interesting about physical computing in this process, however, is how it is shaped by the garment experience. In the garment shown above, the visual experience on the runway was that movement in the garment needed to trigger a light pattern. For its physical appearance, the fashion designer chose to use a crochet technique in the construction of the garment. On the physical computing side, this meant that specific LED lights were chosen, and a movement sensor, or accelerometer, needed to be placed strategically to trigger a light pattern – near the waist in this case.

Opportunities and challenges

It remains a challenge for fashion designers to create many of the garments you’ve seen. Often there is a gap in technology literacy and a large number of choices they can make – such as when or how to use 3D printing, what sensor is appropriate, to what type of programming is needed to make a sensor function.

There are also practical challenges within the broader space of wearables and fashion. Washability of a garment infused with technology can be problematic, as well as the types of electronics incorporated, which are often rigid and uncomfortable on a body. There are also challenges in choosing a battery that is the right sized and provides enough power.

While the practical challenges are ongoing and require much research, creating physical computing tools for the wearables and fashion area provides an excellent opportunity for innovation. From simpler programming tools, to simpler 3D printing and fabric techniques and machinery, to better methods of incorporating new types of smart fabrics, the area is ready to bridge the gap between technology and clothing.

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

Introduction to Physical Computing

Lancaster University