By activating tiny vibration motors in its fingertips, the Mobile Music Touch glove speeds up the process of learning to play a piano melody.
Whether wearable tech is the wave of the future or a passing fad, tech-laden clothing keeps coming down the runway. Although it can be tough to separate gimmick from game-changer, this fashion show has a high-tech core that’s actually functional.
Pauline van Dongen
"When you wear solar cells on your body you can be an energy source," Dutch fashion designer Pauline van Dongen said in describing the inspiration for a prototype coat and dress she made in collaboration with project leader Christiaan Holland, solar panel specialist Gertjan Jongerden and students at the University of Applied Sciences in Nijmegen. Wool and leather garments contain enough solar cells to help charge a cellphone.
Primitive London / Adam Harvey
New York-based artist Adam Harvey created a provocative line of clothing intended to foil ubiquitous surveillance. His anti-drone scarf, along with an anti-drone hoodie, was made from specialized materials the designer indicated could thwart thermal imaging used widely by unmanned aerial vehicles.
Toronto-based suit maker Garrison Bespoke went the extra mile to keep its jet-setting clients safe in dangerous places. The company incorporated patented lightweight and flexible armor material right into the suit jacket. During tests, the carbon nanotube fabric stopped 9 mm bullets and a hunting knife.
Wallflowers take note: Canadian fashion designer Ying Gao incorporated an eye-tracking system into two of her dresses so they transform when a fixed gaze is detected. Tiny motors in the dress activate lights inside and the fabric begins moving around.
Engineer Moritz Waldemeyer may be more well known for helping fashion designers put lasers on jackets and video displays on bikinis, but his collaboration with Cypriot fashion designer Hussein Chalayan produced robotic dresses. Servo-driven motors, pulleys and wires fed through hollow tubes sewn into the dresses allowed them to automatically change styles completely in minutes.
Design lab Sensoree's GER Mood Sweater works like a mood ring, only better -- and with more coverage. Sensors pick up "excitement levels" that change the colored LEDs inside accordingly. Different colors correspond with certain types of emotions although blue means tranquil, not necessarily down.
When consulting a smartphone for directions feels too gauche, there's the Navigate Jacket from New York-based tech company Wearable Experiments. The jacket contains connects to a smartphone app and subtly nudges the wearer to his or her destination through haptic feedback and lights in the sleeve that indicate how far until the next turn.
Mark Vorreuter / Cornell University
A team from Fiber Science and Apparel Design at Cornell University created workout clothes with fabric that loses color as the wearer's temperature rises. This thermochromic pigment-based approach to activewear could prevent athletes from over-heating.
EBbra, Flickr Creative Commons
Some bras already have wires so it's easy to see why designers would add on, allowing them to do things like send a tweet when one comes off or send out shocks to deter would-be rapists. Elena Bodnar went another direction, creating an Emergency Bra that contains a radiation sensor and can transform quickly into two face masks.
The glove looks humdrum, like a garment you might pick up at a sporting-goods store. It’s made of soft black leather and fingerless, like a cyclist’s or weightlifter’s glove. The similarity is, however, deceiving.
"I have a glove that can teach you how to play a piano melody,” Thad Starner declares when I call to chat about the future of wearable computing. Now a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the technical lead of Google Glass, he helped pioneer the field in the 1990s as a student at MIT. “During this conversation, you could have learned ‘Amazing Grace.’ ”
“Really?” I say. “While we’re talking?”
“Sure,” he says and invites me to Atlanta to see for myself.
Caitlyn Seim, a Ph.D student, slips the glove onto my hand. Inside each of the five finger holes she has sewn a flat vibration motor. The five tiny vibrators, which perch atop my digits like gemstones on rings, are wired to a microcontroller on the back of my hand. Seim has programmed it to fire the motors in the same sequence that my fingers would strike keys on a piano.
But she doesn’t tell me which tune I’ll be learning. “You’ll just feel a little buzzing,” she says, flipping on the electronics. Then Starner whisks me away to show off his lab’s myriad other projects: a language-translation app for Google Glass, a magnetic tongue implant for voicing silent commands to a computer, a smart vest to help divers communicate with dolphins, smart chew toys to help police dogs communicate with handlers, and all manner of other wonderfully wacky wearables.
Once every minute for the next two hours, the motors in the glove vibrate across my fingers. I try to figure out the pattern: buzz (middle finger), buzz, buzz, buzz (ring finger), buzz, buzz ... uh.. crap. "IMPOSSIBLE," I write in my notebook.
At last, Starner escorts me to a keyboard. He plays the first passage of a song -- 15 notes that the glove has supposedly taught me. I recognize the tune. It’s Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” I take off the glove.
“Start here,” Starner says, hitting the first note. I lay my fingers on the keys. Middle finger…middle finger…ring finger… “I don’t know,” I say, embarrassed.
“Don’t think about it,” Starner says.
I start again. Middle…middle…ring…pinky…pinky…ring…middle…pointer…. “This is crazy!” I say, still playing. And I don’t stop. I finish the first passage, then play the second, and start into the third.
“Now, hold on!” Starner interjects. “Have you played this before?”
“Never,” I say. It’s true -- I never took piano lessons. Befuddled, he inspects the glove and discovers it’s been programmed to vibrate all four phrases of the song -- 61 notes, not 15. Typically, he explains, he and his students teach only one phrase at a time. I approach the keyboard again. I fumble a few tries -- I’m learning, after all -- but within minutes, I can play the melody perfectly. I feel giddy, like I’ve just discovered an innate talent I never knew I had.
“You just know what to do; it’s insane,” Seim notes. She recently taught herself to play “Ode to Joy” by wearing the glove while writing an application for a research grant. “It’s almost like watching a phantom hand.”
Starner and his colleagues believe that the repeated buzzing from the glove creates a muscle memory that enables a wearer to learn to play a song with far less practice than it would take without haptic stimulation. They have also studied the glove’s effect on people with spinal cord injuries and found that it can help them regain some sensation and dexterity in their hands. The researchers are now beginning experiments to test whether haptic gloves can teach braille typing and stenography, evidence that the technology could impart not just patterns but also language.
“We don’t know the limits,” Starner says. “Can we put these sorts of vibration motors on people’s legs and teach them how to dance? Can we teach people how to throw a better baseball?” He mentions a scene from the sci-fi thriller The Matrix in which the film’s heroes, Neo and Trinity, hijack a helicopter: “Can you fly that thing?” Neo asks his right-hand woman. “Not yet,” she says. The film cuts to Trinity’s eyelids flickering as the knowledge pours through a data port at the back of her skull. Seconds later they’re in the air.
“Of course you can’t do that,” I say.
Starner grins. “Not yet.”