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Digital wearables: fashion & control

Julianne Pierce on the biggest commercial digital media show

Julianne Pierce is a new media curator and producer. She attended SIGGRAPH 2005 as part of a Working Group for the Pacific Rim New Media Summit to be held in San Jose, August 2006.

Held annually in a city in the USA, SIGGRAPH is one of the largest gatherings of the commercial digital media sector staged anywhere and is not necessarily part of the new media arts calendar. Held this year in Los Angeles and with over 29,000 attendees, the scale is phenomenal and includes a trade show, conference, jobs fair and an animation festival.

SIGGRAPH is part of a large network of bodies that fall under the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) banner. An acronym for Special Interest Group Graphics, SIGGRAPH has an expansive international membership of researchers, digital artists, developers, filmmakers, scientists and other professionals who share an interest in computer graphics and interactive techniques.

The annual SIGGRAPH conference is very much aimed at the commercial sector and representatives from this sector comprise most of the audience. Many were there to see the big name keynote, director George Lucas and others were there to hock their wares. The trade fair is a massive enterprise showcasing the latest software and techniques from the big animation and development companies right through to education and academic publications on obscure code and algorithms. It is a fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse into who is doing what and how they are doing it—and who they’re selling it to.

Hovering around the edges of the corporate melee, and what makes SIGGRAPH an intriguing conference, are the quirky and chaotic events such as the Cyber Fashion Show, the international centre, art exhibition, Guerrilla Studio and Emerging Technologies. Run by a core of dedicated volunteers, these events create a very enjoyable rupture in the commercial overdrive of the main events.

The Cyber Fashion Show is organised and hosted by Psymbiote (“a technology-clad cyborg”) and features a variety of wearable computers, head-mounted displays, ‘smart’ clothes, luminous clothing and accessories, futuristic club wear, CAD/CAM jewellery and bodywear. With a strong Gothic influence and grunge LA attitude, the Cyber Fashion Show provided a sneak preview of “clothing of the future.” Highlights were the wonderful Hug Shirt (by CuteCircuit) that allows the wearer to exchange the physical sensation of a hug over distance and the Report-the-World Trenchcoat (equipped with 10 hidden cameras for 360° panoramic shots) by Japan’s Wearable Environmental Information Networks. Australian new media artist Tina Gonsalves was also included in the parade, showing her Medulla Intima interactive jewellery created as part of a recent residency at Banff New Media Institute.

If, on the following day you were inspired to make you own wearable and interactive clothing, you could head on down to the Guerilla Studio. A makeshift lab, the studio provides an impromptu environment for artists, researchers, musicians and others who are presenting at SIGGRAPH to interact with delegates and provide hands-on demos and workshops. The Guerilla Studio is a great place to escape the SIGGRAPH crowds and get to know some interesting and approachable art and technology practitioners and researchers. Just head on over to the wearable technology table, grab a soldering iron, some circuitry, needle and cotton and an hour later you have technology embedded into your bra strap.

Some highlights of the Guerilla Studio were French/Japanese artist Atau Tanaka demonstrating his new interface under development for Sony. Called Malleable Mobile Music, it is a new generation ‘Walkman’ that takes social dynamic and mobility as inputs to a streaming music re-mix engine. The work extends on simple peer-to-peer file sharing systems towards ad hoc mobility and social computing. Sara Diamond (ex Director of Banff New Media Centre) was also demonstrating The Am-I-Able Design Team projects developed at Banff that focus on fashion, wearables, touch and sensory communication. With catchy names like Company Keeper and Emotional Ties, this experimental clothing line aims to enhance and stimulate social interactions.

The corporate/art focus of SIGGRAPH attracts a range of diverse artists, researchers and developers, most of whom are working for university based research centres or independent labs, running their own businesses or working in the R&D units of large technology based companies. Many of these present their work in the Guerilla Studio or the Emerging Technologies section of SIGGRAPH. Whereas the Guerilla Studio has a freeform style, Emerging Technologies is a more structured event where these centres present their latest innovations and kooky inventions.

Emerging Technologies is probably the most interesting and bizarre section of SIGGRAPH. It’s a kind of Quasimodo’s toybox of body enhancements and intuitive interfaces described in the program as “ experiences that move beyond digital tradition...and transform social assumptions. Emerging Technologies presents work from many sub-disciplines of interactive techniques, with a special emphasis on projects that explore science, high-resolution digital-cinema technologies, and interactive art-science narrative.”

Showcasing around 30 projects, the names alone provide an insight into the wonders of Emerging Technologies—Laval Virtual Winner (Virtual VeeJeying); Kobito Virtual Brownies; moo-pong; Interactive Fog Screen; and strangest of them all, Shaking The World: Galvanic Vestibular Stimulation (GVS) as a Novel Sensation Interface.

Developed by NTT Communication Science Laboratories in Japan, Shaking the World is a sort of ‘remote control for humans.’ The device works by attaching 2 electrodes behind the ears that create electrical stimulation through a weak current. The person receiving the charge can be ‘controlled’ through the use of a remote device that regulates the pulse of the current. Many visitors to Emerging Technologies were eager to try the GVS and provided quite a show as they stumbled around controlled by one of the researchers. To add to the overall weirdness of this project, an accompanying ‘promotional’ video showed real-world applications of the GVS, such as remote controlling young children and the elderly!

SIGGRAPH is certainly much more than an industry forum. It provides an overview of where research is heading and the types of experimentation and innovation going on within well-funded research labs. Some projects, like Atau Tanaka’s ‘Walkman’ or many of the wearable projects are investigating social applications, human interactions and communication, whereas projects like the GVS have an eerie and perverse sci-fi edge. SIGGRAPH offers an overview of all this and more, insight into the technological imagination being driven very much by the US and Japan. From the smallest gadgets to the Hollywood machine, SIGGRAPH is an eye-opener into the enormous influence and power of the very well lubricated digital machine.

Remote Controlled Humans, SIGGRAPH 2005, Los Angeles, July 31-Aug 4

Julianne Pierce is a new media curator and producer. She attended SIGGRAPH 2005 as part of a Working Group for the Pacific Rim New Media Summit to be held in San Jose, August 2006.

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 33

© Julianne Pierce; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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