The desire to wear wearables is waning. It’s time for the fashion industry to step up to the plate

Fashion and tech have been uneasy bedfellows at times, but there are a number of designers who are combining the two to great effect. We look at whether it will be the creative output from the fashion industry that puts wearable tech back in vogue

Of the few industries still interested in infusing the things we wear everyday with tech, it’d take a brave man to bet against the fashion industry – rather than VR headset makers, or fitness fanatics – being the ones to make wearable tech wearable.

But making wearables desirable, rather than just functional, isn’t a simple task; it means taking traditionally hard and cold wearable technology, smashing it together with the delicate world of fashion, and hoping that what you come out with is clothing that is fashionable, alluring, empowering and techy.

There are some companies finding ways to do just that, but, as a way of demonstrating the problems associated with combining the worlds of fashion and tech, I just wanted to share some of the more illogical, Derek Zoolander-inspired comments made by representatives for the fashion industry at the Wearable Technology Show 2017 (names have been omitted to save the speakers’ blushes).

Image courtesy of The Unseen

“Fashion is just like skin and wearable technology is just like a vitamin.” It’s not really though is it.

“We all wear clothes of some sort, all the time, whoever we are, whatever we’re doing.” No shit.

“I’m staggered by how many wipes there are in industry today and everywhere you see ‘please do not throw it down the loo’. Why are we using them? What was the matter with old-fashioned tissues, or cloth or anything else. I mean it is really indescribable how big the non-woven wipes market is, and I think it’s very dangerous. I think it’s very, very dangerous.” Yes, this person did take to the stage at a conference about wearable technology to rant about how wet wipes are “dangerous”, “very, very dangerous”.

Innovative or kitsch?

Back in the nineties, Francesca Rosella worked as a designer for the Italian fashion brand Valentino. Now, together with trained artist and anthropologist Ryan Genz, Rosella is creative director of CuteCircuit, a startup fashion label, launched in 2004, that is using smart textiles and micro-electronics to build beautiful, functional garments. The company’s pièce de résistance is undoubtedly its graphene dress, which records and analyses the wearer’s breathing patterns and reacts to whether heavy or light breaths are taken. Deep breaths turn the lights on the dress from purple to turquoise, while lighter ones make the dress switch from orange to green.

While CuteCircuit has been praised for its creativity, some of its other work shows how fine the line is between an innovation and a gimmick in wearable tech. The company was responsible for a haute couture Twitter Dress that could receive tweets in real-time. It’s not too great a leap from a dress that receives tweets to a dress that changes colour depending on your breathing, but to some the Twitter dress is on the wrong side of the gaudy/innovative border.

“Technology for technology’s sake is very gimmicky and very kitsch, and this is no disrespect to Cute Circuit because they’re a fantastic brand. The graphene dress: beautiful, stunning exciting, interesting, intriguing. A dress that you can send tweets to is probably the most gimmicky thing I’ve ever heard of,” said Sanj Surati, head of digital and innovation at communications agency Village.

“There are problems with the fashion technology world because the assumption is technology has to be functional and it has to give you something, and that application of thought when you’re trying to be creative is very stifling. Where the line is, I don’t know because when it comes to fashion it’s all subjective: there’s things you like and there’s things you don’t like.”

On the high street

Although the “we all wear clothes of some sort, all the time, whoever we are, whatever we’re doing,” quote sounds ridiculous to me, there is a serious point being made by that commentator. There’s a great amount of data to be collected from fashion, and that presents a great opportunity to fashion brands. So far, though, it’s high-end and luxury brands who are willing to get involved, while high-street brands appear reluctant to experiment with tech.

“Some of them [the high-street brands], as grandiose as they are, are very risk adverse, very traditional; they don’t want to take chances,” said Surati. “Usually the conversations they have with tech businesses are: look you work with us, we work with you, we won’t pay you for anything, but you’ll get loads of PR from the fact that you worked with Topshop or H&M etc.

I think a lot of those brands have got loads of money, but no ambition. They’re not seeing the value of what these tech startups are coming up with, and what they bring to the table

“I think a lot of those brands have got loads of money, but no ambition. They’re not seeing the value of what these tech startups are coming up with, and what they bring to the table.”

What we’ve seen so far are one-off haute couture dresses that are combined with wearable tech, rather than less expensive alternatives that are available to all. Luckily, fashion does work on the trickle down approach, so items that begin as high-end usually find their way to the high street. To date though, we haven’t definitively decided what the high-end of this market should look like, but as Elena Corchero, director of design research at Lost Values, says, falling costs will allow for more elaborate designs that still allow the conservative fashion industry to maintain the sanctity of, and artistry within, the atelier.

“Technologies in general are looking quite minimalist and quite safe aesthetically just because they try to reach everyone because developing these technologies is expensive,” said Corchero. “The more affordable they become I hope we can then start testing the different markets, some people love the whole blinking, blinking thing.

“I think understanding the market you’re trying to reach instead of trying to please everyone is the next stage.”

Combining art and science

Whether techy textiles make their way to the high street or not, wearable technology will allow the fashion industry to explore new creative endeavours. What it also allows is a romance between the worlds of art and science and that should also be celebrated even if the resultant products aren’t as wearable as they should be at the moment.

“There’s this fantastic material scientist, her name’s Lauren Bowker, she runs a brand called The Unseen,” said Surati. “She wanted to create a dress that basically changed colour depending on what you were thinking. It was a very beautiful piece of clothing, but no one could wear it because the ceramic fibres would heat up and it would burn you, but we basically built this dress, and developed it in partnership with her.

“It was absolutely beautiful,” said Surati. “We PR’d the hell out of it, and everyone started flying in from all over the world to see this dress. That dress wasn’t very practical, but it didn’t matter, this was her trying to express herself. You had to put on a EG headset for it to change colour, and we didn’t know what the colours meant – we didn’t know what emotion attributed to what colour – but it was so cool that the head atelier of Victoria Secret – one of the most profitable fashion businesses in the world – flew in to see this dress because they were interested in this new art form, which is what we’re building today.

“What everyone here is building today is new forms of being creative, and that’s exciting.”

Soviet report detailing lunar rover Lunokhod-2 released for first time

Russian space agency Roskosmos has released an unprecedented scientific report into the lunar rover Lunokhod-2 for the first time, revealing previously unknown details about the rover and how it was controlled back on Earth.

The report, written entirely in Russian, was originally penned in 1973 following the Lunokhod-2 mission, which was embarked upon in January of the same year. It had remained accessible to only a handful of experts at the space agency prior to its release today, to mark the 45th anniversary of the mission.

Bearing the names of some 55 engineers and scientists, the report details the systems that were used to both remotely control the lunar rover from a base on Earth, and capture images and data about the Moon’s surface and Lunokhod-2’s place on it. This information, and in particularly the carefully documented issues and solutions that the report carries, went on to be used in many later unmanned missions to other parts of the solar system.

As a result, it provides a unique insight into this era of space exploration and the technical challenges that scientists faced, such as the low-frame television system that functioned as the ‘eyes’ of the Earth-based rover operators.

A NASA depiction of the Lunokhod mission. Above: an image of the rover, courtesy of NASA, overlaid onto a panorama of the Moon taken by Lunokhod-2, courtesy of Ruslan Kasmin.

One detail that main be of particular interest to space enthusiasts and experts is the operation of a unique system called Seismas, which was tested for the first time in the world during the mission.

Designed to determine the precise location of the rover at any given time, the system involved transmitting information over lasers from ground-based telescopes, which was received by a photodetector onboard the lunar rover. When the laser was detected, this triggered the emission of a radio signal back to the Earth, which provided the rover’s coordinates.

Other details, while technical, also give some insight into the culture of the mission, such as the careful work to eliminate issues in the long-range radio communication system. One issue, for example, was worked on with such thoroughness that it resulted in one of the devices using more resources than it was allocated, a problem that was outlined in the report.

The document also provides insight into on-Earth technological capabilities of the time. While it is mostly typed, certain mathematical symbols have had to be written in by hand, and the report also features a number of diagrams and graphs that have been painstakingly hand-drawn.

A hand-drawn graph from the report, showing temperature changes during one of the monitoring sessions during the mission

Lunokhod-2 was the second of two unmanned lunar rovers to be landed on the Moon by the Soviet Union within the Lunokhod programme, having been delivered via a soft landing by the unmanned Luna 21 spacecraft in January 1973.

In operation between January and June of that year, the robot covered a distance of 39km, meaning it still holds the lunar distance record to this day.

One of only four rovers to be deployed on the lunar surface, Lunokhod-2 was the last rover to visit the Moon until December 2013, when Chinese lunar rover Yutu made its maiden visit.

Robot takes first steps towards building artificial lifeforms

A robot equipped with sophisticated AI has successfully simulated the creation of artificial lifeforms, in a key first step towards the eventual goal of creating true artificial life.

The robot, which was developed by scientists at the University of Glasgow, was able to model the creation of artificial lifeforms using unstable oil-in-water droplets. These droplets effectively played the role of living cells, demonstrating the potential of future research to develop living cells based on building blocks that cannot be found in nature.

Significantly, the robot also successfully predicted their properties before they were created, even though this could not be achieved using conventional physical models.

The robot, which was designed by Glasgow University’s Regius Chair of Chemistry, Professor Lee Cronin, is driven by machine learning and the principles of evolution.

It has been developed to autonomously create oil-in-water droplets with a host of different chemical makeups and then use image recognition to assess their behaviour.

Using this information, the robot was able to engineer droplets to have different properties­. Those which were found to be desirable could then be recreated at any time, using a specific digital code.

“This work is exciting as it shows that we are able to use machine learning and a novel robotic platform to understand the system in ways that cannot be done using conventional laboratory methods, including the discovery of ‘swarm’ like group behaviour of the droplets, akin to flocking birds,” said Cronin.

“Achieving lifelike behaviours such as this are important in our mission to make new lifeforms, and these droplets may be considered ‘protocells’ – simplified models of living cells.”

One of the oil droplets created by the robot

The research, which is published today in the journal PNAS, is one of several research projects being undertaken by Cronin and his team within the field of artificial lifeforms.

While the overarching goal is moving towards the creation of lifeforms using new and unprecedented building blocks, the research may also have more immediate potential applications.

The team believes that their work could also have applications in several practical areas, including the development of new methods for drug delivery or even innovative materials with functional properties.