Physical making

Wearable Media

As a welcome break from purely technical electives, I took a Fine Arts course in my last term of undergrad. The course was a special topics course on wearable media; integrating technology into your wardrobe, or simply turning ideas into wearables.

Arduinos may or may not have been involved.

Background

I transferred out of German to take a special topics course because while the chances of me using German in my day-to-day life was pretty slim, wearing clothes with embedded technology was probably even slimmer. But there's an aspect of physical experience and critical reflection when it comes to fusing application with abstract conceptualization that I really wanted to explore. The introduction of smart materials and the prevalence of technology in daily life means that even science can become art, and computers do not have to be used for pure functionality.

Project: Cardboard Prosthetic

The prompt for the project was to create a prosthetic out of a single sheet of cardboard. Concept and inspiration were entirely up to us, the students, and we presented our creations to the rest of the class after 2 weeks of wrestling with our tools. The only requirements were that the product would be made (mostly, apart from attachment tools) out of cardboard and that it could be worn by a user.

I came up with a few ideas:



After refining and choosing, I decided to focus on the shell concept. Personally, I tend to be very shy and introverted, and I would love to have a protective shell to hide under sometimes. However, I also wanted to conceptually step out of my comfort zone, and explore the duality of helplessness and protection surrounding a shell. Shelled animals, when flipped on their backs, are incredibly helpless and unprotected, which holds a certain irony because of the protective nature of their shells.

In terms of construction methods, I was really inspired by David Graas's lounge chair and parametric design. In regards to the latter, I personally like its minimal and refined look (despite its heavy crisscrossing, the lines are sharp and precise) while maintaining a sort of organic and fluid shape. I also wanted to try to use the technique because of structural integrity and its potential to hold hefty weights. After all, my friend had to roll on her back for the in-class demonstration, and I did not want to hurt her from faulty construction.




I started off by creating a mini prototype with scrap cardboard, to play around with the potential shape and construction. I bent a strip to hug the curves that would match my wearer's posterior curves because I thought it would be more comfortable for him/her, but I didn't have enough cardboard to implement this at a larger scale.




Then, I moved onto expanding my prototype to real dimensions. I traced my friend as she was standing (lying down yielded a weird, flat curve), and started mapping out pieces based on pieces of cardboard of a set size. The laser printer could only take materials of a limited dimension, so my segments could not exceed that.

I did run into issues during my project; for example, I realized that the way I was planning to slot my pieces of cardboard together was infeasible and would give me a series of broken pieces. I had to reformulate on the fly and hastily edit my Illustrator files. I was slightly too generous with my anticipated cardboard width (for my slots), so I had to use a decent amount of hot glue to strengthen my shell. I also ran out of time for laser printing in the arts department, so I quickly did a qualifications course so I could use the one in the engineering department.

For 2018, "Shell" is on display at the University of Waterloo's Brush with Art exhibiton.





Project: Tandcuffs

"Tandcuffs" is a play on the words "tandem" and "handcuffs", because it is essentially a pair of tandem handcuffs.

The prompt for this project was to simply create a social wearable which forced the wearer to interact with others. My source of inspiration came from a class exercise, where depending on the colour of a wooden block we picked out of a bag, we had to sketch out rapid-fire ideas. My colour was red, which was assigned the theme "love/hate".

Once again, I wanted to explore the duality between two seemingly opposite concepts. I looked at the duality of protection and helplessness in "Shell", so I wanted to look at how I could turn love into hate and hate into love. I thought of concepts that would not allow lovers to express affection, or something that would force enemies to cooperate.



Ultimately, I stuck to the second idea and built up on it, and decided to create a beeping item that required users to work in tandem to shut it up. My goal was to change the feeling of anger into intimacy by having people who are forced together via handcuffs to work together to accomplish a goal. A popular technique or advice bestowed upon couples is to hold hands while fighting to ground and reintroduce some positive emotion in a turbulent time and in schools (i.e. kindergarten); young children are sometimes made to hold hands until they make up.





An in-progress shot of the inside of one of the cuffs plus concept sketches. The circuit was set and coded with an Adafruit Flora, via the Arduino IDE. The cuffs emit a beeping noise which can only be shut off with the use of a touch sensor. The sensor is activated when the two palm pads, which are laced with conductive fabric, touch. The sensor reads in a low value when active, which tells the Flora to turn off the noise.

I struggled with deciding how to integrate touch sensors into my handcuffs. I mapped out contact surfaces on fingers for intertwined hands and initially wanted to use rings, but decided there were too many variables for it work as intended.



The following is a concept video that demonstrates the handcuffs in use via a fighting couple. Thank you to my wonderful friends for starring in my short film.



Reflection

When I walked into this class, I didn't know what to expect. I had background in coding, but not in writing code for Arduino (although the skills were fairly transferrable). But Wearable Media was not just technical implementation; it was also conceptual fabrication and the ability to weave together so many realms to create something. There was a clear difference in the types of projects my friend and I made (I took the course with one of my engineering friends) as opposed to ones done by the arts kids. Generally speaking, while we may have had an upperhand in technical skills, we were blown away with the creativity and lack of fear shown by our classmates.

Despite our different backgrounds, the class had eerily similar ways of thinking as well. For the cardboard wearable project, almost half the class turned to animals and means of protection/isolation. Someone built an armadillo shell, another created a little costume set to mimic animals scaring predators off in the wild.

Wearable Media was by far one of the most enjoyable courses I took during my undergraduate degree. As an engineer, I'm often focused on the application side of things and how to think in terms of a system, but this course let me fuse form and function together. Sometimes, all we wanted was the form, and function was just a means to an end. I learned a lot through the making process—I messed up a lot and thought I wasn't going to make deadlines. But it was through this process I was able to develop stronger critical thinking skills while exploring concepts I would have never thought of otherwise.

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