Tech Off Your Underwear
Glenn Zorpette, IEEE Spectrum
Condom-maker Durex is behind the first electrically-engineered underwear, Fundawear.
Celebrating the Bikini
July 5, 2011 --
If you hit the beach over the Independence Day weekend, you couldn't escape the sight of a 65-year-old summer staple: the bikini. Though the two-piece is widely spotted on sandy coastlines throughout the world today, this bathing suit was not always so commonplace. In fact, it caused such an uproar that some nations banned the garment outright within their borders. However, since the launch of the bikini, named after the islands on which atomic bombs were tested after the new bathing suit went off with a bang, summer has never been the same.
Bikini Inventor On July 5, 1946, French engineer Louis Réard released to the world what would become the modern incarnation of the bikini. In this photo, Réard appears later in life in front of the outfit he made famous.
Bikinis and Bombshells Before Réard debuted his take on women's swimwear, designers in the 1930s and 1940s had already begun to experiment with two-piece bathing suits. These garments typically wrapped around the midriff and covered the navel. Réard's design, by contrast, was far more revealing. Model Micheline Bernardini demonstrates one of the first of Reard's original bikinis. Since no professional models would agree to wear Réard's creation, he had to hire Bernardini, a nude dancer. The object she's holding in her left hand is a matchbox, in which the bikini could fit. Named by Réard after the islands upon which the atomic bombs were tested, Bernardini and the other bikini models may have been history's first figurative "bombshells."
Roman Bikinis Although Réard's quest to design women's swimwear that was "smaller than the world's smallest bathing suit" led directly to the popularity of the bikini, his concept wasn't entirely original. In fact, women have been documented publicly wearing similar garments as far back as 3,400 years ago. This mosaic from the Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily shows Roman women from the fourth century exercising while wearing a two-piece ensemble similar to a bikini. These garments, however, were not swimwear. They were used as athletic clothing and later undergarments into the Middle Ages.
Crimes and Misdemeanors Starting in the mid-19th century and on into the early 20th, women's bathing suits were a little more restrictive -- and restricted, legally speaking, throughout the United States. Swimwear that was too revealing violated indecent exposure laws. The 1907 case of one woman, Australian swimmer and performer Annette Kellerman, who was arrested for wearing a bathing suit without sleeves, even appeared on the big screen decades later in the 1952 film "Million Dollar Mermaid." Esther Williams, star of "Million Dollar Mermaid," is seen here playing Kellerman.
The Shrinking Suit As the 20th century rolled forward, women's bathing suits rolled backward. Sleeves disappeared, necklines dropped and more skin was exposed. In this photo, a police officer in Palm Beach, Fla., measures the length of a woman's bathing suit to determine whether it conforms to the law.
Slow to Catch On Although the bikini sold well in France, the reception was less enthusiastic elsewhere in Europe and around the world. Réard's swimwear was banned by many U.S. states and several countries, including Italy and Belgium. Within the swimsuit industry in the U.S., the bikini was met with scorn, with its detractors claiming the suit left nothing to the imagination. Even the Vatican weighed in. Despite the controversy of the garment, the sex appeal of the bikini proved an undeniable draw. Bridgette Bardot, seen here in a bikini while filming the French movie "Le Trou Normand," is credited with popularizing the bikini in terms of raising widespread awareness of the swimsuit.
Stalled Debut Other Hollywood actresses, including Marilyn Monroe, also picked up on the bikini's appeal and could be seen wearing them in promotional shots. By the end of the 1950s, however, bikinis were still a rare sight on American beaches. That started to change as a new decade rolled in.
Captured in a Ditty In 1960, Brian Hyland helped transform the bikini from cutting edge to bubblegum with the (annoyingly) catchy song "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini." With this newer, less-racy depiction of the bikini, sales took off.
Bond Girl Boost When Ursula Andress, who played Honey Ryder and is widely regarded as the first "Bond girl," strolled out of the water wearing a white bikini as seen in this photo, Andress made fashion -- and film -- history. By the mid-1960s, bikinis had gone mainstream.
Ever Smaller The popularity of the bikini led to new takes on Réard's original design. In the 1970s, Brazil gave the world the thong bikini, topping Réard's smallest-ever bathing suit. With the widespread acceptance the swimsuit now enjoys, the bikini has lost some of its edge, but it still maintains the same sex appeal that it did when it first premiered 65 years ago.
So, maybe you’ve bought a Nike+ Fuelband or a Jawbone UP band. Maybe it’s still on your wrist, and you check its data compulsively. But maybe it’s in a drawer, with your clunky smartwatch, your portable HD radio, and your Microsoft Zune.
“I don’t think wearable technology has found its niche,” said app developer Q Manning during a panel session Monday at the SXSW Interactive conference. “We all know we want it, but we don’t know what we want it to do yet. We’re all waiting for someone to solve that problem, but, unfortunately, Steve is gone.”
Manning’s co-panelists certainly had a few ideas, though, and one of them was vividly demonstrated by a pair of statuesque models who took the stage in technologically advanced and yet attractive underwear, prompting a blizzard of camera flashes. The demonstration came as close as could be reasonably expected to fulfilling the promise of the session’s title: “Tech Off Your Clothes: Naked Truths Of Wearables.”
The underwear were prototypes developed in a project called “Fundawear,” explained panelist Jay Morgan of the marketing firm Havas Worldwide. Havas had been hired by the UK-based manufacturer Durex, which was eager to associate its brand more with innovation. Though it offers an extensive line of personal massagers, for example, Durex is generally recognized only as a maker of condoms.
Havas was charged with coming up with a splashy innovation for Durex, and their brainstorming soon centered on the question, “can we do something for when they are not together? Can you actually touch someone over the Internet?”
This proposal led to what can only be called a milestone in human civilization: the first ever electrically-engineered underwear. Fundawear was designed by another of the SXSW panelists, Billie Whitehouse, whose firm is called Wearable Experiments. The prototype Fundawear samples are close-fitting black undergarments equipped with tiny haptic electromagnetic vibrators, which produce a momentary sensation much like piezoelectric-based units used to create the quick vibration in a smartphone when a key is touched.
The units are strategically installed in the garments -- in the female version, in both brassiere and panties -- to make contact with sensitive regions of the body. When the wearer’s partner touches his or her smartphone, the sensitive regions are helpfully indicated on a template on the phone’s screen, the wearer feels a gentle frisson, or even a light stroke, depending on whether the partner has touched or swiped the screen.
The engineering challenges were nontrivial, Morgan explained. First, they wanted to create the sensation of a lover’s gentle touch, and finding a technology that could reliably and safely produce that feeling, and be laundered, wasn’t easy. “There was some great work in electroactive polymers at the University of Auckland,” Morgan explained. “We contacted them and they said, ‘where are you going to stick this stuff?’ And we said, ‘down in your pants.’ They said, ‘Oh, that’s probably not a good idea,’” noting that the polymers operate at 4500 volts.
Another challenge was making instantaneous contact, no matter how far apart the partners were. An app pairs the wearer’s smartphone to his or her garment, using Wi-Fi (Bluetooth would be used if Fundawear is put into production, Morgan said). But the users’ phones have to communicate with each other securely and instantaneously. The design team solved that one by using Amazon Web Services, a cloud scheme, to convey the data between phones. Each partner has a secret key to assure security, Morgan added.
Eugenia and Stephen, the models who wore Fundawear at the SXSW session, were delighted with it. “It’s a very light vibration, like a touch,” said Eugenia. “It depends on how you touch,” she said. “If you slide, it’s like a stroke.” The two did not know each other prior to the SXSW assignment, and they each controlled their own undergarment, Eugenia said. “We didn’t want to be too intimate in this situation,” she explained. (Stephen didn’t have a comment.)
Morgan said executives with Durex’s Global Product Development Team are studying the feasibility of putting the wearables into production. He said a decision could be announced in the next several months.
Wearable Experiments’ Whitehouse demonstrated another possible direction for wearables at the session. She was wearing her Navigate Jacket, which pairs to a smartphone app and gives gentle and appropriately timed taps on the left or right shoulder to guide the wearer to a destination.
Asked about the future of the jacket, Whitehouse replied, possibly with tongue slightly in cheek, “The future of this jacket, for me, is inductive-charging coathangers.”
Later in the session, when asked about what people, particularly older people, really want in wearable electronics, she said: “My mother, in particular, just wants a device that repels all other technology. That doesn’t let people track her, or contact her.”
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