Geek Chic

In the expanding world of wearables, one challenge is how to tailor technology into something we’d actually want to wear. As fashion and technology merge, Kent State researchers and students from diverse fields are collaborating on innovations that could become an essential part of our everyday lives.

by Jenni Laidman '77, illustrations by Melissa Olson

Illustration by Melissa Olson

It’s a sock.

Not exactly a big fashion item. Nobody goes to fashion school with dreams of becoming the Coco Chanel of socks. And when it comes to new technology, it’s hard to picture Apple rolling out the Apple sock, the iSock, the MacSock. 

But don’t dismiss it. Because this sock has potential: Its temperature-sensing capability could help prevent foot amputations for people with diabetes. Air travelers might want a pair for long-distance flights because of their ability to detect the temperature change that comes from life-threatening blood clots, a known risk of sitting for extended periods. Healthcare workers might use it to monitor patients at risk for bedsores. Its offspring, in the form of T-shirts and headbands, may tip off young football players at risk of heat stroke, or, in the form of gloves, may alert Arctic researchers dangerously close to frostbite. Its grandchildren may be wound dressings that detect infection and then treat it.

It’s also helping Kent State establish a, ahem, foothold in the exploding field of wearable technology (clothing and accessories that incorporate computer and advanced electronic technologies). This temperature-sensing sock — a collaboration between faculty members at the School of Fashion Design and Merchandising, the College of Podiatric Medicine and the Liquid Crystal Institute — is just one example of the university’s growing efforts to enter the wearables market via an unlikely partnership of engineering know-how and fashion aesthetic sense. Such integration is an essential step in transforming wearable tech from fashion accessories fit only for the technologically besotted into beneficial — and beautiful — items with mass appeal.

Who really wants to wear a rubber bracelet?

J.R. Campbell, Ph.D, director of the Fashion School, hopes to close the gap between engineering and aesthetics. “People have been trying to strap computers onto their bodies for a long time,” he says. In the meantime, the creation of fashion has been transformed by technology. “The problem is the gulf between wearable technology creators and fashion. What it has lacked over time is anybody saying, ‘Well, why do we really need that?’ ”

Campbell pulls his white iPhone out of his pocket and places it on one of the high tables in the Fashion School’s TechStyleLAB. “This is the most effective wearable technology out there, and the only clothing you need to support it is a pocket.” No one questions its success both technologically and aesthetically. Yet too many wearables fall short of that standard, meeting the aesthetic sensibilities not of the fashionistas, but of the young tech geeks.

Even popular fitness trackers such as Fitbit or Jawbone only recently began to take appearance into account, notes Kevin Wolfgang, MFA, TechStyleLAB outreach program manager. Who really wants to wear a rubber bracelet? “I was stunned that it took so long for these companies to engage fashion firms like Dooney & Bourke to create pieces that were aesthetically appropriate,” Wolfgang says. “Women love tech. They’re interested in gadgets. But developers are ignoring this huge segment of the market.”

Illustration by Melissa Olson

From the perspective of Robin Bonatesta, a senior with a double major in fashion merchandising and computer science, wearable tech needs an intervention. “I hate wearable tech. All of it. It’s really frustrating to see engineers coming up with cool ideas but then totally ignoring the fashion side.” 

To remedy the disconnect, she helps prepare the fashion minded to collaborate with the tech savvy. Through the student organization HacKSU, which she co-leads, Bonatesta teaches fashion students and other beginners basic tech skills, such as how to create a website and do some coding. “And it’s been successful,” she says. 

HacKSU — along with the Fashion School, Blackstone LaunchPad (which helps nascent entrepreneurs at the university), Liquid Crystal Institute, School of Digital Sciences, and Department of Computer Science — organized an annual Fashion/Tech Hackathon focused on developing wearable technology prototypes, in tandem with academic and business symposia. 

In January 2015, the event’s second year, 144 students from 19 universities, along with researchers and business leaders from across the United States, came to Kent State for the weekend tech events. 

Hackathons are sleepless marathons of invention and standard practice in the tech student world. But for fashion students, this was new territory. A.J. Morganti, a senior applied engineering major showed up with a toy box full of tools for the Fashion/Tech Hackathon, thinking he might be of some help, and also figuring this might be the one hackathon where females outnumbered males. He was right about both. A Fashion School team snapped him up to help them create workout clothing intended to measure, basically, everything. Morganti proposed a more modest plan: installing sensors in clothing that would let users know if they were executing a pushup correctly. 

Morganti was delighted to find a team open to his viewpoint. Then his teammates shocked him. “The first night, they went home to sleep! I’m lying in bed thinking, I have so much work. I got out of bed and coded until 4 or 5 a.m.”

But he learned from the fashion majors as well. Over the 36-hour sprint, his teammates sat him at a sewing machine and even handed him an iron, giving him his first taste of some older technologies. His moment of truth came when his teammates saw the app he had created for their fitness clothing. They hated it. They wanted something to match the fashion sensibility of their outfit, which featured a spine-revealing laser-cut design in the back. 

“The app was all industrial looking and blocky,” Morganti says. His teammates helped him create a finished product that better matched their aesthetic sense. Their SmartGains biometric workout clothing took second place in the hackathon, behind a New York team that created a GPS-linked backpack designed to free the urban explorer from the need to stare at a phone and miss the surroundings.

The temperature-sensing sock collaboration started almost three years ago, not long after the former Ohio College of Podiatric Medicine, in Independence, merged with Kent State University. Soon colleagues at the College of Podiatric Medicine and the Liquid Crystal Institute were talking about how they might work together to solve foot problems. Jill Kawalec, Ph.D, associate professor and director of research at the College of Podiatric Medicine, and John West, Ph.D, Trustees Research Professor at the Liquid Crystal Institute, narrowed their focus to one frightening ill effect of diabetes: Diabetics can lose all feeling in their feet, and minor infections left untreated often lead to amputations. “Someone could step on a nail and not realize it,” Kawalec says. 

Bringing in Margarita Benitez, MFA, assistant professor and fashion technologist at the Fashion School, they began work on a sock that people with diabetes could put on briefly each day to check their foot health. The sock would register subtle changes in foot temperature, turning blue — a bit counterintuitively — when infection made the temperature rise, or changing to red when the temperature fell, possibly signaling a blockage in circulation. To demonstrate the concept, they settled on a fabric and painted liquid crystals on its surface, then compared its sensitivity to that of a thermal imager. The fabric passed the test. 

But several challenges remain. For instance, the fabric they’ve worked with thus far only stretches in one direction. Socks need to stretch in all directions. Further, the liquid crystals on the test fabric may wear off or otherwise degrade, and the fabric can’t be washed. To solve this problem, the crystals will be encapsulated and thus protected from the environment and the washing machine.

Economic forecasts suggest the importance of staking some territory in the growing field of wearables. The independent market research firm IDTechEx says wearable electronics are a more than $20 billion market this year. In 10 years, they predict a market as large as $70 billion. SNS Research, which also tracks this market, estimates wearable shipments will pass 140 million next year, generating $30 billion in revenue, with a compounded annual growth rate of 30 percent over the the next five years. Whatever way you interpret these data, one thing is certain: the field is taking off, spurred by the availability of low-cost sensors, the growth of wireless connectivity and the rise of smart materials that are active and interactive.

The real growth explosion will come, IDTechEx predicts, with the invention of smart textiles woven with electronic capabilities. Kent State could be part of this revolution. West’s lab recently developed a thread with a liquid crystal core, making it possible to create fabrics with the capabilities of a laptop screen. How about Internet access on your sleeve? Or clothing that can detect an athlete’s electrolyte balance? Or wall coverings that communicate? “Now that I have a thread, I can weave it,” West says. “I can start thinking of doing everything that’s being done display-wise, sensor-wise, into fabrics.” 

But he warns it could be decades before these promising new threads show up in your blue jeans. Although creating such a thread proved to be far easier than West expected
(he is applying for a patent), several significant challenges remain. For instance, while liquid crystals can sense temperature without a power source, creating a liquid crystal fabric display will mean finding a way to attach a power source, a tricky problem.

If Kent State is going to continue on this pathway to innovation, fashion experts and technology mavens will have to learn to talk to one another, says Kevin Wolfgang of the TechStyleLAB. “How we communicate is huge. We get isolated in our own departments, using our own language, and we don’t have open communication. We need to learn each other’s language. We need to break down our language for other people.” 

To continue on this pathway to innovation, fashion experts and technology mavens will have to learn to talk to one another.

The Fashion School is experiencing greater opportunities for collaboration as industry comes calling for its expertise. For instance, a graduate student in the Fashion School is working with a Northeast Ohio company to create clothing that can warm up quickly—a real boon to anyone who works outdoors. Further, Margarita Benitez, who might hold the first fashion technologist tenure-track spot at any university anywhere, hopes to create an interdisciplinary lab to work on wearables and attract funding for research. “I see a bright future in the field. It’s just a matter of getting the right people in the right room.”

In a bit of serendipity, Benitez helped do just that in 2012 when she co-curated an exhibition at the Kent State University Museum called Shifting Paradigms: Fashion + Technology. “It had all kinds of wearable tech and examples of how technology was being used in fashion,” she says. While at the exhibit, she was approached by Kate Harmon, then associate director of Blackstone LaunchPad, who suggested creating the Fashion/Tech Hackathon. 

This year the hackathon coincided with the launch of the first KSU TechStyleLAB Symposium, at which academics presented papers on fashion and technology. An industry group, the Northeast Ohio Wearable and Embedded Technologies Consortium, held its first meeting in Kent on the same day as the symposium and hackathon, attracting 50 experts in wearable technology from across the region. (Next year, the Fashion/Tech Hackathon runs January 29 to 31.)

“We want to tie our curriculum and the future of the Fashion School into the emerging role of technology,” says Campbell. “We need to better bridge the gap between us and the core technology innovators. That’s where our future lies.”

Jenni Laidman ’77 is a freelance writer based in Louisville‚ Kentucky.

Wear Next

Fitbit and Apple Watch are just the beginning of the wearable tsunami to come. Although many early wearable devices haven’t met consumer expectations (one survey said a third of consumers who purchased a wearable fitness tracker in the last two years stopped using it within six months), developers are exploring ways to collect more consistent data and turn them into insights that are meaningful and relevant to users. 


Many consumers still welcome wearable tech apparel and devices that will meet their needs, as reported in “The Wearable Future,” a survey prepared by the professional services firm PwC. Below we list the top benefits that 80 to 90 percent of consumers identified as important in that report, along with a few products we’ve found that are designed to provide them. 


Keeping children (and others) safe

• The Sproutling ankle monitor provides worried parents with a wealth of data, including skin temperature, sleep position, heart rate, and even probable waking time. Other devices that measure baby biometrics include the Owlet Smart Sock and Pacif-i, the smart pacifier.

• The FitGuard mouth guard tracks head acceleration and notifies the coach if the acceleration makes the player a probable concussion victim.

• ActiveProtective smart garments detect when the wearer falls before he or she hits the floor and deploy airbags to prevent broken bones. A Fujitsu wearable, FEELthym, can alert drowsy drivers by sending vibration to a user’s neck.

Healthy living 

Eating healthier, exercising smarter and accessing more convenient medical care

• The Adidas in-shoe tracker, Speed_Cell, records distance, speed, stride rate for any sport and, in combination with miCoach, provides real-time performance advice. The Adidas X_Cell on-body sensor tracks quickness, vertical, hustle and heart rate.

• The Garmin Forerunner 620 watch helps athletes prevent injuries by advising users on recovery times between workouts. Garmin’s S6 Golf Watch adds swing analysis to its data collection.

The Empatica wristband can measure the onset of seizures, which could help determine the efficacy of anti-epileptic medicine, or trigger an ambulance call. 

Simplicity and ease of use

Making technology simpler and easier to use 

The bPay wristband, introduced by Barclay Bank of London, takes the place of credit and debit cards. 

• The Narrative Clip, a 5-megapixel camera that clips to your clothing, takes a picture every 30 seconds and provides free cloud storage and apps to organize the thousands of photos captured in your life log. 

• Ringly, a ring set with a semi-precious gem that connects to your smartphone, subtly notifies you when someone on your pre-set list sends you an email.

But beware
In the “The Wearable Future” report, 82 percent of consumers said they were concerned that wearable tech will invade their privacy, and 86 percent expressed concern that wearable tech will make them more vulnerable to security breaches. Wearable tech companies will need to earn consumer trust and navigate potential regulatory issues that emerge as the category grows.

Watch a video about the temperature-sensing sock

Watch a video below about Margarita Benitez’s prototype of a Tiny Screen Necklace.


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