From Wired to Wear at the Museum of Science and Industry, wear your emotions on your backpack with this customizable digital backpack. With a PIX backpack, you can design your own artwork or select from a library of images, then send them wirelessly from your phone (photo by J.B. Spector).
Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
A new exhibition at the Museum of Science and Industry this summer examines the future of wearable technology, how our clothing, accessories and other everyday articles will become extensions of ourselves. Like the ubiquitous smartwatch, backpacks, hats, sunglasses, outerwear and more will one day serve to enhance our senses, increase accessibility to messaging and even protect us from harm. And guess what, that day is today.
By Isaac Jacobs
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From the Summer 2019 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
Imagine this, you’re walking along a street in one of America’s largest cities with your AirPods blaring your favorite music. You approach a busy intersection with the right-of-way, courtesy of a green “Walk” indicator flashing just ahead of you, and just then your hat or perhaps your watch alerts you to an oncoming vehicle that does not appear to be slowing in time to stop before the intersection you’re about to enter. Sound futuristic? Perhaps. Perhaps the future is now.
It’s certainly the message a new exhibition at the Museum of Science and Industry wants to convey. The future is wearable technology, and the future is now. On view through January 2020 at the museum, Wired to Wear is the first exhibition dedicated to the future of wearable technology, bringing together cutting-edge technologies from pioneers in the industry, along with creative visionaries, all demonstrating just how clothing is becoming infused with tools to make the wearer stronger, smarter and even healthier.
In over 8,000 square feet of exhibition space, Wired to Wear seamlessly melds what is now with what is yet to come in the very near future, showcasing technology infused garments covering the gamut of applications from pragmatic to fanciful.
As director of collections and head curator for the Museum of Science and Industry, Kathleen McCarthy, explains, one of the exhibition’s objectives is not to show some theoretical technological development that may point to the far off future or have applications that may never impact the lives of the average individual, these are technologies that touch a wide range of applications and uses today.
“When we first started looking at creating Wired to Wear, we knew we wanted to provide guests with a range of pieces that provide a comprehensive look at the future of wearable technology,” McCarthy told me. “And this exhibit is the first to do that. That's why we included innovations that are sports-, wellness- and fashion-related. As a guest, you want to understand what is in it for you, and keeping this in mind allowed us to tell a broad story and one that guests can apply to their own lives.”
To that end, the Museum of Science and Industry assembled an incredibly diverse team of experts, designers, brands and artists across 15 countries to partner with in this exhibition, bringing ingenuity to wearable technology applications touching a wide variety of needs and applications, many from everyday life.
Some of those partners include Google, Intel, NASA, John Hopkins University, MIT, Harvard and celebrated artists Anouk Wipprecht and Jordan Reeves.
Fittingly (no pun intended) Wired to Wear exemplifies the museum's hands-on approach to science, “Experiencing the Future,” designed to allow guests the opportunity to touch, feel and even try on the technologies explored in this intriguing new exhibit. Organized to show guests both wearable technology, the exhibition showcases what is currently available juxtaposed alongside prototypes and experimental devices that point to the future of the field.
Accessibility for the viewer was always one of the museum’s priorities in developing this exhibition. Says McCarthy, “We want guests to feel they've gotten a glimpse of a very near future in which the functionality of their clothing has radically transformed. We want guests to see how accessible this technology is and be inspired to imagine new ways their clothing could enhance their lives.”
As guests enter, one of the first things they see is the Wall of Wearables, which features dozens of current examples of wearable technology—like the Emma Watch, a device which helps ease tremors for people suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Toward the end of the exhibit, guests are met with pieces that comment on who we are as social beings, like a jacket that barks when others get too close.
There are several items showcased in the exhibition available to the public today, some of which focus on safety. The Dainese D-Air Racing Suit contains sensors that monitor motion 1,000 times per second. It inflates automatically when a collision is about to happen, so the wearer is protected. It was designed for motorcycle racers, but one can imagine the application to activities like skiing and mountain biking. The Wall of Wearables features a bicycle helmet with the exact same technology.
Another related item available today is SpiderSense, a piece that vibrates to alert the wearer of oncoming obstacles or other dangers. McCarthy pointed out it was designed for people with vision impairments, but could similarly be used for firefighters in low-vision scenarios.
More futuristic wearables featured in the exhibition include one of the smallest in the exhibition, medical “tattoos” created by John Rogers, Ph.D., from Northwestern. This small device records the vitals of premature babies, but is safe to attach to their delicate skin. The device is also wireless, which provides caretakers easier access to hold and care for the infant.
Microsoft designed another intriguing tattoo featured in the exhibition. The conductive Smart Tatoo turns the body into an interface, by which wearers are able to create notes on an instrument or control lighting. McCarthy explains the swipeable wearable technology is a trending device in the field today. “Turning clothes into interactive touch screens is just one practical application we’re consistently seeing," she told me. "The Levi's Commuter Jacket, which is featured in the exhibit, contains Google Jacquard technology which allows the wearer to simply swipe or tap on their sleeve to answer their phone, fast forward through a song or get directions.”
Jacquard by Google also teamed with Japanese creative firm WOW on a garment incorporating Google Jacquard fabric that permits guests to control a series of fans and lights that allow it to float gracefully. Gravity Industries’ Jet Suit is one of the more fanciful elements of the exhibition that actually is available commercially today. The suit is comprised of five miniature jet engines and an exoskeleton, which can travel more than 30 miles per hour and ascend 12,000 feet.
And one of the more whimsical elements in the exhibition is Nike’s self-lacing shoes, direct from Back to the Future Part III. The shoes are on loan from the collection of Ripley’s Believe It or Not!
Another very important element of this new exhibition for McCarthy was the inspiration for guests from every walk of life to explore creation in this burgeoning space. “The exhibit features a range of creators, from a 13-year old inventor to architects, technologists, artists and beyond,” McCarthy noted. “There is no one path that leads you into this industry.”
So to further inspire interest in the field, MSI has launched Makers United, a complimentary and ancillary experience that allows guests try their own hands at assembling wearable technology themselves. Sponsored by ArcelorMittal, Makers United helps guests get hands-on with circuit building and fabricated materials to make their own glowing circuit band and connect with the maker experience. They can learn about the ever-growing maker movement, a culture that stimulates curiosity, creative thinking and, of course, hands-on building.
Said McCarthy, “Our hope is that they leave the museum with the motivation to continue tinkering at home, so they can understand that they too can have a part in advancing the field of wearable technology,” and in doing so advance the museum's important mission to get people up and out to experience the future in ways they never thought possible.
Wired to Wear is presented by BMO and will be on view at MSI through May 2020.