OCAD Wearable Tech in Toronto Star today

OCAD gives technology an artistic spin; School’s design students merge fashion with circuitry to encourage social interaction

Page X4 under "Courses and Careers"

Toronto Star
Thu Mar 24 2011
Page: X4
Section: Feature
Byline: Madhavi Acharya-Tom Yew Toronto Star

Fashion collides with technology in a classroom on the third floor of OCAD University.

Students in professor Kate Hartman’s advanced wearable technology class are gathered around a big table in the middle of the room, discussing their “social bodies” projects. The assignment: incorporate technology into a product or garment in a way that will bring about a social interaction.

The conversation is fluid, shifting in a moment from fashion and pop culture trends to which fabrics and materials are most conducive to circuitry and programming.

Further confusing the discussion is the tug-of-war between the artistic and the commercial.

Erin Lewis, an integrated media student, is talking about her project, which she has called “stock market lingerie.” It’s a brassiere that she has wired to give stock market updates as the clasps are undone.

People keep asking where she would like to sell it, Lewis tells the class, and that puzzles her. “It’s an art piece. It’s not something you’re going to find on the shelves at Wal-Mart,” she says, and the class responds with howls of laughter.

Sometimes it’s very clear whether a project is meant to be artistic or commercial, Hartman says. “Sometimes that ambiguity is fun to play with. But the trouble is that some people may not go there with you.”

Industrial design student Ken Leung is talking about a project he’s called “The Soundtrack of Their Life.” It’s two pendants, each equipped with galvanic skin response sensors to measure the changing moods of the two people wearing them.

Each pendant sends a stream of data, which is transformed into music when it reaches the other person’s pendant – low steady tones when the first person is calm, and high-pitched notes when the person is intensely happy, excited or anxious.

Leung concedes that it may not be an entirely accurate way to measure moods, but the point is to foster understanding between the two users.

The idea lights a spark in class. Students respond with questions and suggestions: Where is the best place to put the sensors? Who would use this technology; couples or mothers and babies?

Wearable technology is the science and art of incorporating technology into clothing and wearable products. It explores the relationship between the human body, information, fashion and the gadgets that we love.

Although still in its early days, this field is being pulled into the future as technology becomes more mobile, discreet and powerful. Today, most applications are found in health care, athletics, and the military. At OCAD, students in the introductory class learn the nuts and bolts of technology – from how to work with micro-controllers, sensors and other devices to programming and how to incorporate devices into clothing using conductive fabrics and materials.

At the advanced level, students develop, experiment with, and produce their own projects.

Undergraduate students at OCAD can get a minor in wearable technology. Students come from industrial design, studio arts and other disciplines, Hartman says.

“It makes for an interesting conversation. Students have to challenge their own assumptions because they’re dealing with peers who come from a variety of perspectives. It really makes them think about what they’re doing.”

Readings in the course range from technical how-to guides that cover the latest technology and programming to industry journals and pop-culture perspectives on technology and fashion.

Students are evaluated on how well they develop and articulate their own ideas, as well as the design and technical success of their projects.

“Some students are very pragmatic and some are exploring artistic expression,” Hartman says. “These are very creative thinkers. They tend to go outside the box immediately.”

© 2011 Torstar Corporation

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