Arie Altena

Developing Reconfigurable Dresses
Arie Altena interviews Di Mainstone, Stock and Simon de Bakker at V2_ about the development of Sharewear

Arie Altena

In March 2008 the English artist and fashion designer Di Mainstone was in the middle of an artist-in-residency period at the V2_lab, developing a pair of interactive dresses: Sharewear. Her plan – for which she was awarded the artist-in-residence period for Wearable Technology – was to create a "series of reconfigurable, sensor based, modular garments, which singularly or collectively transform the body and its environment through social exchange". Stock and Simon de Bakker of the V2_Lab were collaborating with her on respectively the hardware and the software for the dresses. The interview that was held in March focussed primarily on the development of the technology for the artwork and on the collaboration in the team. What was the working method? What is the relation between the process of developing an artwork, and the development of technology needed to realize the artwork?

AA: This interview will be used in the first place as part of a documentation of the artist-in-residence period. Di, could you start with explaining roughly what the project is about, and how you three collaborate?

DM: The project Sharewear is going to comprise of two or three reconfigurable dresses. They will be dresses that physically slot together in different ways and in doing so activate different shards of light that highlight the sculptural elements of the dress. The lights can also be used to cast silhouettes through shadows, in a more or less theatrical way. For the reconfigurable dresses we are using architectural structures and fabrics. The dresses slot together as pieces of a jigsaw-puzzle. We are going to use very strong magnets for that, so they will make sound when they click together. You will have a nice clunky "click"-effect. The dresses will be exhibited as a performance, and we will have a soundtrack, maybe with the sounds of the magnets. When two dresses click together light from one of the dresses will be activated. This then triggers another event, maybe a piece of fabric will come up to function as a screen through and on which light is projected. It catches a silhouette. This refers to the use of silhouettes in Victorian times.

AA: Do you start with a design for a dress, or do you rather start with an interaction scenario of what will happen during a performance?

DM: I first put together a chart of how the dresses will interact. I have a whole series of scenario"s of how one dress activates another one, what light comes on when, et cetera. The scenario"s contain all the sequences that can occur. With that I go to Stock and Simon. That is how our collaboration starts.

St: The collaboration is an iterative process. First there is the design concept, that involves certain technological aspects. Simon and I then come up with possible solutions for the technical issues, like how to make the light. That turns out to be an issue: a lightbulb in the dress has to be bright enough to cast shadows. This means you need at least a 40 watts-bulb. But you cannot put that in the dress because you need so much power for a 40 watts lightbulb that the dress will become really hot. That is why we immediately researched high power LED-technology. LEDs still get hot but a lot less hot than lightbulbs. The light-source of LEDs is relatively small but it includes a heat-sync and that has consequences for the design of the dress. You simply need room inside the dress for the heat sync and also for air to cool it. The requirement of the heat sync is fed back into the design of the dress. Di has to adapt certain things to make room for the technology. This process repeats over and over again.

DM: It becomes apparent in the sculptural aspects of the dress. The voluminous aspect of the dress creates room for hiding the technology: the LEDs, the heat sync, the Arduino-board and the battery-pack. I make the dress in a way that there is place for them, and I created a funnel for air to circulate inside the dress.

St: It is a step by step process really. All elements fit in the dress, they are kept in place by using foam, and the wiring runs through the foam. It cannot be any other way than it is now.

AA: And then there is a sensor as well?

St: The idea is to incorporate a RFID-chip as a sensor. The dress will have magnetic buttons, on which you can place wooden objects.

DM: I call them Migrating Mood Models. They can be placed on the dress. Every model has an RFID-tag and the dress can read that. The RFID mood-model dictates what animation the dress will show and it changes the behaviour of the LEDs. You will get different patterns in the light: flickering, pulsing.

AA: Is this programmed in the Arduino-board?

St: The Arduino-board distinguishes which mood-model is attached to the dress at a given point in time. It then chooses one of the patterns preprogrammed in the Arduino-board. I am mostly developing the hardware, so I made a little board that sits on top of the Arduino. We have tried different boards to drive the LEDs. We have some issues with availability and shipping times, so we are trying different solutions. I designed a board that holds the RFID-reader (which comes ready-made from Istanbul) and connects it in the right place to the Arduino board. It is a custom-designed board, made by the V2_Lab. It also makes available the other connections that we will need to for the LED driving-circuits and for the magnetic sensors. There will be switches too – sensors that detect the presence of a magnet; they will be also be incorporated in the dress. The Arduino-board can sense if the other dress is connected on one side or on the other side. It activates the light, and the presence or absence of an RFID-tag modifies the behaviour of the light that comes out of the LED.

SdB: That is my part in the collaboration: I program the Arduino-board. I basically program it in C and sometimes use a mixtures of assembly-languages. This program is loaded on the Arduino-board and makes the light go on an off in various ways, depending on the presence or absence of the RFID-tags.

DM: We have discussions about this all the time: how should the light behave. We have continuous mini-brainstorms in the room where we"re working on the project. How to integrate the technologies, how to hook one thing onto another? Thanks to these discussions I do not go too far down the design road in a completely wrong direction. These discussions, and also the larger group discussion that we have once a week to get an overall view, are really important.

AA: What are the main issues now, halfway the development process?

DM: Receiving all the parts that we ordered on time.

St: Budget is also a big issue. We do not have money for all the stuff that we need. So we spend a lot of time hunting down cheap deals, and a lot of time finding sponsorships.

DM: We just found a fabric sponsor.

St: It has cost Di almost a week of her time to get that sponsor-deal, and that time might have been spent well on something else. The same goes for finding the cheapest possible circuits, or the cheapest possible alternatives for batteries.

AA: So you are not running against what you could falsely call "purely" technical limits, but more limits to do with technology, resources and money.

St: Logistics and money are the real issues.

DM: Another issue is the fact that every part of the process has a learning curve of its own. There are so many learning curves here at once, that it sometimes feels unreal. But this also means we are all learning a lot.

AA: I can imagine that the combination of an RFID-reader on top of an Arduino-board is something that many people are trying to make at the moment.

St: Oh yes, it is all part a a big DIY-scene in which a lot of strange things are happening. Lately we had some guys visiting the V2_lab who were trying to connect a RFID-chip to a Nintendo DS, simply because they could hack it. Now they are building a bluetooth module for the Nintendo DS. There is a whole world of experimental electronic art. Of course the Arduino-board is targeted at that world. The extensions and the design of it should be made open source so anybody can build it at home.

SdB: It is actually quite simple, it is not a difficult design or a complex software.

AA: Certainly you can do it yourself. Still, about how many days of work are we talking here, how simple is it?

SdB: Usually it is the endresult that turns out to be really simple. But it will take quite some time to get at the simple result.

St: But once you have the result, and it is made available online, then anyone can download the design and apply it oneself to build one"s own board. It is possible because the Arduino-circuitboard has all the wires on one side. If you would use a double-sided or a 8-layer board, probably nobody could make it themselves.

SdB: The same goes for the software. There is also a lot of software available in the Arduino community but coding in the Arduino environment is not a very efficient thing to do. That is why I discarded it and started to program in C, directly on the chip. The Arduino-environment is actually a wrapper that makes it easier for a lot of people with less knowledge of programming, to program the board. Yet the wrapper around it uses a lot of extra code, it takes extra memory and clock-cycles. For me it was more efficient to work on the board itself.

AA: Di, you were explaining about the light, how it shines from the dress and on the dress, and how the dresses click together. What is your interest in these matters, how does it relate to your earlier work?

DM: I have always had an interest in reconfiguring the human body and the human silhouette. With Sharewear I am also getting more interested in the idea of clothes that can be shared, clothes that through wearing create a happening that brings people together. One of the themes of the project is to look at social barriers, the way we behave in social situations. With Sharewear I try to dissolve social boundaries and try to bring about a fun situation.

AA: Is it dissolving the barriers or showing boundaries and reconfiguring them?

DM: You can look at it in both ways, I guess. What it can dissolve is a certain awkwardness of some everyday situations. Maybe such dresses can bring people together that would ordinarily not come together. On of the ideas of the performance is that we involve the audience too, it is not only about showing the dresses. It is about the moment when you are hesitating to join in, and then you do join in, and it turns out to be fun. I was also interested in making a reference to the home in the dresses, and the idea of transiency, the idea of bringing the home out in the public space. Intimate space in public space is a theme as well. It is a very personal theme for me too, as I am constantly travelling from place to place. I noticed the other day that I cannot bring large things with me. But I do hang my clothes on the wall wherever I go. Clothing becomes a metaphor for home. I also use light as a metaphor for home. A silhouette of a dress may resemble a house, so when you turn on the light the dress represents home within a public space.

AA: How does the audience participate?

DM: The dresses can be put together as modules, and I would like to have the audience do that. The Modulating Mood Models with the RIFD-tags can be applied by the audience to the configured dresses. In that way the audience decides on the ambience and the lighting of the performance.

AA: Much of the scientific and consumer-related research into wearables is about regulating behaviour. Clothes that read the body temperature, that tell people where they are, give feedback about health and the environment. It is seldom not about fun, it is rather functional. Your work on the other hand seems to aim at fun, at social play?

DM That is a thread that runs through my research. Yet I do not discard all the functional aspects. The use of light in these dresses is also a research for my next project. I would like to create shared shelters for people with seasonal affection disorder from dresses that give light. You can then hide in the light. I will work on that in Scotland. I like to keep moving. Sometimes my work centres around social observations and playfulness, but it is also a step to the next project. After Sharewear I will have learned a lot about performance and about the aspect of reconfiguration. Hopefully after my research in Scotland I will do a residency that will put the playfulness of Sharewear in the centre again and will allow me to develop those aspects further. I have been looking a lot at the work of Oskar Schlemmer, the Bauhaus-artist. The creation in performance that he was doing has not been done so much. I would like to try and push that as far as I can as well.

AA: In its visual design the reconfigurable dresses to me seem to take a lot of inspiration from Modernist and avant-garde design – you mention Schlemmer. Is there still a secret connection between modernism and "newness": as soon as one starts to think about future in connection with technology, Modernism comes in?

DM: If you look closer, the reconfigurable dresses are not truly modernist in inspiration. I am very interested in sculpting around the body, and a massive interest of mine is in the possibilities of pattern-cutting. I am not so interested in making reference to what is done already. Yet I do always refer back to the history and tradition in terms of fabrics: like Victorian and vintage fabrics, and also natural fabrics. It is a weird combination of two things. I do not work with a futuristic fabric and a futuristic cut. I like to have a balance between tradition and futurity. Sharewear is not a commercial project at this stage so it is fun to push the limits a bit – I have been a commercial fashion designer for years. Certainly over the last few months I have been learning a lot. I am slowly getting a clear vision of what I am doing and where I am going – which is an unusual "feel" to be in. There are all these threads of interests going at once: social play, reconfigurability, the interest in the functional uses of wearables. Hopefully something visionary that is also commercially viable, will come from all this research.

A second, much shorter interview took place on the 22nd of April 2008, after the first public presentation of Sharewear during the Test_Lab Topology event on April 17th at V2_.

AA: Di, during the presentation at Test_lab last thursday, it was very apparent that you were really, really happy that Sharewear actually worked.

DM: Yes. We had been working on it up until the very last minute. We have been very ambitious with the whole project, there is a lot going on with technology, and also physically, as the construction of the dresses is somewhere halfway between clothing and furniture. There have been many unknowns. We completed so much in the final weeks in terms of construction and technology, that it was almost unbelievable that it all worked out. For all of us it was really a joy that it sparkled at the right time. We were soldering and doing a lot of stuff up until the last moment. We had five minutes before the presentation to practice and do a run-through.

AA: At this presentation one part was finished and another part was not yet finished. You are still here at V2_, although technically the residency is finished. Can you explain what is finished and what you are still working on?

DM: We still have to finish the Modulating Mood Models. The switches for the light are working but the bits do not slot together perfectly. Until yesterday there were are also still a few issues with the RFID and the Arduino that we still had to solve. We are now focussing on the bit of the dress that holds all the technology like the battery-pack and the Arduino, and make that look aesthetically pleasing. We tried to cover it up as well as possible for the presentation, but through that process we realised what needed changing. We will make some changes internally so it will fit a little better, look better from the outside, and will be a bit more comfortable to wear. Nice last minute tweaks really. I hope we will be done next week.

AA: This means that two dresses will be finished?

DM: Yes. Stock has a limited amount of days to work on that. After that I will work with Richard Bierhuizen on making boxes for the dresses. The performance starts with two models – actually twins – and two boxes on the floor that contain the dresses. The models then take the dresses out of the box and modularly slot them together. It also means that the dresses can be stored well, and that the project can be shipped from place to place. We have made a website too, and we hope to do a photoshoot with the dresses next week. And if I find time and someone who wants to make a little film, we will do that too. Otherwise we will have to do that next time I come.

AA: What did you learn from this project?

DM: I have learned so much. It has been great in that respect. I really enjoyed working with architectural aspects, and loved working on the mechanical parts with Stock. I"d like to work with mechanical things again, like the levers that extend and shorten the lights. I think it"s really a charming thing to have in a piece of clothing.

AA: Was that in you original plan already?

DM: The whole idea was to manipulate the light, the levers were actually a suggestion of Stock. We wanted to have a way to make the light at the back of the dress longer and shorter. So Stock suggested using a lever mechanism and that fitted really well with the other aspects of the dress, like the wooden buttons. I am definitely on that tip. My next project will be physically modular too, but I will simplify next time, just to make life easier. But doing this much I learned a lot. I do not regret it.

AA: It seems that often in the field of electronic arts, one starts with defining a project that seems to be fairly simple and doable, but while working on it, it turns out to be a lot more complex than anticipated? When you started you had a very clear planning...

DM: If you would say "double the time" for the project, then we would have probably taken a little bit more time for research. That would have maybe led to defining some aspects slightly differently. But there wasn"t time for that.

AA: Did you miss the time to take a step back and rethink?

DM: Definitely. We had the opportunity to do workshops, small informed workshops, but more of those would have been useful. They are a luxury in this timeframe. Two months is actually too short for a wearables project, if we would have been doing one dress. Three months is the bare minimum. But then again we really pushed what we wanted to do, made a website, et cetera.

AA: What were the reactions from the audience during the Sharewear presentation?

DM: During the presentation people were actually smiling a lot. They were excited and some wanted to touch the work, but there wasn"t as much interaction as I expected. But it was not the best context for the work, in a more performative context there might have been more interaction from the audience. And also it was not quite finished, so they might have been nervous that they would break something. But the smiling was good feedback.

AA: Now that plan is to develop a performance, and repeat that at a few different occasions?

DM: Yes, I"d love that. We have found another set of identical twins that is willing to work with us on a performance on the 8th of May 2008.

AA: When the boxes are finished, will it then be a performance that can easily travel?

DM: That"s the idea, it"s will be really portable. Not everybody thinks about that. The project is actually quite a monstrosity, it will cost quite a bit if you ship it and you have not got the right packaging. So the idea is to have everything ready to go. A lot of these kind of projects are maltreated, because people do not know how to handle the parts correctly.

AA: So the project can be handled by someone else too, without someone travelling with the boxes to explain?

DM: Well, I will have to be flown over always to explain, but I love to do that. But I will also make sure that there are instructions and illustrations explaining the work when I can not be there.

Published on V2_ archive, 2008
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Arie Altena / V2_