Design and desire

30 January 2009

Last Sunday the New York Times ran a fascinating cover story called “What do women want?” on a group of female researchers who are trying to understand what ignites female lust. It’s a really diverse treatment of the subject, with theories ranging from intimacy to narcissism, all explored through robust clinical studies.

My particular interest in the piece relates to the arousal-sensing dress I’m working on as part of my biodynamic clothing project. The premise of the project is for the garment to sense when the (female) wearer is aroused and to move in response. My original framework was based on an internal/external model, where the goal was to take an internal emotional state and project it outwards onto the “skin” of the body, much like a peacock or any of a series of other animals. Using that construct, it seems most plausible to use light or some other display technology to communicate the output. But all along I’ve really had my mind set on using motion for the output, a decision that has created numerous design opportunities, as well as many obstacles.

Reading the article, a passage struck me that I believe illustrates another possible framework for viewing the movement aspect of the garment. In this section, the author is explaining a theory relating to the disconnect between female test subject’s subjective self-evaluation of their arousal and the physical biodata, and a contrasting tendency in men.

The penis is external, its reactions more readily perceived and pressing upon consciousness. Women might more likely have grown up, for reasons of both bodily architecture and culture – and here was culture again, undercutting clarity – with a dimmer awareness of the erotic messages of their genitals.

Motion, then, is indicative of a totally different construct – that of a leveling between men and women. Female arousal, as the article makes plain, is mysterious and often impossible to detect. Arousal in men is, by contrast, apparent, and its mode of expression is through motion. Therefore it is natural to imagine that a prosthesis (for clothing is prosthesis, at its root) depicting female arousal would also exhibit motion.

This passage also suggests to me a powerful justification for the arousal-sensing garment: to conceptually bridge the gap between mind and body for wearer and/or audience. The dress is not intended as a ready-to-wear piece – it’s an exploration into the power of technology to bring responsiveness and emotion to previously static products in our lives. But the idea of using technology to bridge this mind-body gap is very intriguing. One macro interest area for me in my work is the notion of how objects can transform our interactions with others. But perhaps this idea of biodynamic clothing could also hold potential for self-discovery, so that in the process of interacting with an object, you strengthen connections within yourself.

PS: As to why the graphic above, it’s the first pull quote from the article and I just really loved the type treatment!

Eye candy: LED lollipops

8 January 2009

Look at this! If this isn’t joy, I don’t know what is. From the NYT, this is the full story.

Project intro: Arousal-sensing wearable

14 November 2008

The third of the three major projects I’m working on at the moment, the arousal-sensing wearable is exactly what it sounds like: a dress that senses when the wearer is aroused, and reacts to that biodata.

There are a few dimensions of the project that are particularly interesting to me about this topic. First of all, I think there is some very interesting stuff going on in the wearables space right now. (For examples, see this.) But there’s also a lot of overreliance on LED displays and pragmatic integration of everyday electronics into garments and accessories. Some of these efforts are well-intentioned but clunky; I’m thinking of some of those solar-charging backpacks and jackets that have iPod remotes in the sleeves. Workable, yes. But once I became aware of what we can do with very simple, open-source technology such as Arduino, I became intrigued by the possibilities of more fully integrating technology, clothing, and the body.

Skin is fascinating to me, and critical to the logic of the project. We conceptualize skin as a barrier, but skin is really more of a porous membrane. In many species, skin reflects the internal state of the organism, projecting it in color, pattern, or aroma as an important means of communication with other organisms. As the only species that covers our skin with clothes, it strikes me that we are missing out on a useful potential means of communication, particularly with potential mates.

In addition, there is another uniquely human factor that complicates the transmission of our internal states outward. The burden of consciousness is that it deprives us almost entirely of the ability to make unpremeditated gestures, particularly when it comes to romance. It’s impossible to unconsciously convey our interest in a potential mate. (Though body language experts say that we do, many an urban single has been misled in this way). But what if we could create a second skin that would bypass our consciousness and display our visceral reactions directly from our bodies?

To me, this represents a transformative possibility. People may not at the moment consider it desirable to be so transparent, but if urban singles continue to lead such busy lives with such few opportunities for romantic interaction, it may become a new shortcut, a more efficient way to meet. I also see possibilities for couples, offering subtle communication to a partner about the wearer’s mood and reaction to the partner’s behavior. Communication in couples or even friendships could become a wordless dialogue of sensation and physicality, bringing about a new kind of body consciousness and a better awareness of self.

Right now I’m in the process of wiring up the input circuits and developing the garment’s output mechanism. I’ll write more detail about the process shortly. To start, the image above is a mood board I created on my wall to inspire the design and texture of the garment. More photos to follow.