Interview with Joanna Berzowska
I had the honour to curate an issue for the Vague Terrain online magazine. Unfortunately this magazine does not exist anymore. Because I think the content is even more relevant now I decided to publish the interviews here. For that issue I had the opportunity to interview some people that work and research in the field of wearable technology.
This one is from Joanna Berzowska, founder of XS labs. Keep in mind that this interview was made in 2011!!!
Ricardo O’Nascimento: what is your educational background?
Joanna Berzowska: Joanna Berzowska is Associate Professor of Design and Computation Arts at Concordia University and a member of the Hexagram Research Institute in Montreal. She is the founder and research director of XS Labs, where her team develops innovative methods and applications in electronic textiles and responsive garments. Her art and design work has been shown in the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum in NYC, the V&A in London, the Millenium Museum in Beijing, various SIGGRAPH Art Galleries, ISEA, the Art Directors Club in NYC, the Australian Museum in Sydney, NTT ICC in Tokyo, and Ars Electronica Center in Linz among others. She lectures internationally about the field of electronic textiles and related social, cultural, aesthetic, and political issues. She was selected for the Maclean’s 2006 Honour Roll as one of “thirty nine Canadians who make the world a better place to live in”. She received her Masters of Science from MIT and worked with the Tangible Media Group of the MIT Media Lab before co-founding International Fashion Machines in Boston.
RO’N: How did you start to work with wearables?
JB: I founded XS Labs in 2002, in my first year at Concordia University, and positioned it as a design research studio with a focus on innovation in electronic textiles and reactive garments. My interest in this field, however, did not originate from weaving, fashion design, or even fiber arts. It emerged from a concern with the lack of softness in HCI (Human Computer Interaction) and the desire to explore a wider range of material properties in the development of physical interfaces.
While a student at the MIT Media Lab in the mid 1990’s, I was drawn to electronic textiles for their ability to conform to the human body and their potential for bringing softness to physical interfaces. The work I was conducting in HCI focused on tangible interaction and involved the manipulation of physical objects with the human hand. I anticipated that electronic textiles would allow us to expand the realm of physical interaction into a wearable context and to explore the boundaries of what I call “beyond the wrist” interaction.
Our design philosophy at XS Labs focuses on the use of smart materials and technologies as fundamental design elements. The projects at XS Labs often demonstrate a preoccupation with — and a resistance to — task–based, utilitarian definitions of functionality in HCI. Our definition of function simultaneously looks at the materiality and the magic of computing technologies; it incorporates the concepts of beauty and pleasure. We are particularly concerned with the exploration of interactive forms that emphasize the natural expressive qualities of transitive materials. We focus on the aesthetics of interaction, which compels us to interrogate and to re–contextualize the materials themselves. The interaction narratives function as entry points to question some of the fundamental assumptions we make about the technologies and the materials that we deploy in our designs.
RO’N: I find very interesting your approach to the relation between the body and energy in the Captain Electric project. What is your inspiration for this project?
JB: With the proliferation of wearable and portable electronic devices in our everyday lives, our power consumption needs are constantly increasing. The development of alternative energy sources has not kept up with the needs of our markets and we find our spaces cluttered with an ever-expanding number of adaptors and chargers. A promising alternative involves the development of energy sources that are independent from our power grids and reside on the body, collocated with the electronic devices they power. Research in this area includes (1) alternate power sources such as flexible solar panels, photovoltaic cells, biobatteries, and dielectric elastomers among others; (2) eco-design and design for sustainability; and finally (3) parasitic power, which involves harnessing energy directly from the body or generating power by the user. Researchers such as Paradiso from the MIT Media Laboratory have studied methods to recover power (a) passively, from body heat, arm motion, typing, and walking, and (b) actively through user actions such as winding or pedaling. Many of these solutions compromise comfort in order to deliver functionality, which contributes to slow rates of acceptance both from designers and potential customers.
The dresses are the result of a development process that included a series of structured brainstorming and bodystorming exercises. Very early in the design process, it was decided that we would not attempt to conceal the generators and their operation. Previous work in body-generated power strives to seamlessly integrate generators into wearable artifacts so as not to make their presence “obvious or annoying”. Most often, this is accomplished by harnessing the energy from walking by embedding generators in the soles of shoes. We chose to pursue a different approach, one that is heavily influenced by the field of fashion design. While it is difficult to accept an uncomfortable running shoe or other fitness garment, it is easier to embed the discomfort and the inefficiency of current human-generated power solutions into the culture of fashion and costuming. Fashion designers throughout history have distinguished themselves by presenting new silhouettes and trends that constantly surprise and challenge the body. This has been exemplified by devices that include brassieres, bustles, crinoline hoops, and exaggerated shoulder pads as well as more extreme practices that involve deliberate physical deformation of the body. The field of fashion design often embraces discomfort and has been known to tolerate some amount of pain, which inspired us to explore the use of irritation and inconvenience as a means of power generation on the body. The Captain Electric garments focus on alternate definitions of functionality, such as pleasure, fun, and beauty, so as to allow playful and engaging design concepts, while leveraging the discomfort to influence the conceptual direction of the experience.
RO’N: Why do you think is important to make intelligent clothes?
JB: Many of our electronic textile innovations are informed by the technical and the cultural history of how textiles have been made for generations (weaving, stitching, embroidery, knitting, beading, quilting) but use a range of materials with different electro-mechanical properties. This enables us to construct composite textiles with more complex properties. New developments in material sciences and the field of electronics have often been hard, solid, and unyielding. We want to make them soft, playful, and magical, so as to better service the curvilinear contours of the human body and the complexities of human desire. Working within the Fine Arts, we often infuse dark humor and romanticism into the materials and processes as a way to drive technical innovation.
RO’N: Do you intent to commercialize your work?
JB: Yes, through my students. I inspire them to work in the field and they graduate and start commercial ventures.
RO’N: How do you predict the future of wearable technology?
JB: I deeply believe that the killer application will not involve reading email on my sleeve, increasing my productivity by receiving vibrating reminders of my appointments in my jacket, or keeping track of my calorie intake through my necklace. Those are specialized applications. They are not fun or sexy. They sound too much like work. The future of “smart textiles” and wearable technologies is to have fun, to connect with friends, and to bring social networking information back onto the body.