The Wearable Absence Project: Wearable Absence #83

Barbara Layne
Janis Jefferies
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Barbara Layne, Studio subTela at Hexagram-Concordia, Montreal, Canada Janis Jefferies, The Digital Studios, Goldsmiths, London, UK

Wearable Absence #83


In Science News (March 31st 2008) it was announced that, “Garments that can measure a wearer's body temperature or trace their heart activity are just entering the market, but the European project BIOTEX weaves new functions into smart textiles.

Miniaturised biosensors in a textile patch can now analyse body fluids, even a tiny drop of sweat, and provide a much better assessment of someone's health” [1]. At the same time, Philips Research produced a range of promotional jackets featuring its innovative Lumalive technology. Lumalive textiles carry dynamic advertisements, graphics and constantly changing color surfaces. Indeed, Smart fabrics promise to revolutionise clothing by incorporating sensors into cloth for health, lifestyle and business applications. In the long term, they could consist of circuits and sensors that provide all of the typical electronics we carry around today, like mobile phones and PDAs. Drawing on Marshall McLuhan’s observation (1964) that the garment is an interface to the exterior mediated through digital technology, Sabine Seymour writes in Fashionable Technology (2008) that, “… the electric age ushers us into a world in which we live and breathe and listen through the entire epidermis”. [2]

If McLuhan thought the ‘Medium was the Message’, then the body is that medium with an emphasis on an ecosystem of accessories, from iPod white wires to integrated ear bud clothing, in short a way of interacting with gadgets that appear and appeal as more ‘natural’ and that go beyond single areas of evolutionary improvement. In other words, spreading the functions over a number of co-operating parts providing more value as a co-coordinated whole, supported by high bandwidth, short-range wireless technologies. Such devices, it is argued, will be worn on and in the body, earrings as speakers, necklaces as microphones and cameras, sleeves as screens.


The Wearable Absence Project (WAb)

So what’s distinctive about Wearable Absence?  It is that a mainframe is presented in which unique garments become the catalyst and filter within technologically mediated process of memory reconstruction. The project has created several prototype garments that incorporate wireless technologies and bio-sensing devices to activate a rich database of image and sound.  Two teams of researchers led by Professor Barbara Layne of Studio SubTela at Hexagram-Concordia in Montreal, Canada and, Professor Janis Jefferies at Goldsmiths Digital Studios in London have created, with their respective teams including graduate researchers, a dynamic system of clothing engaged in a technologically mediated process of memory construction.  

Whilst Studio subTela has focused on the production of garments and sensing devices, the Goldsmiths team concentrated on the construction of a database architecture, the adaptation of mobile technologies and creative narrative models to be used in the prototypes.  The retrieval and broadcast of everyday life in the form of the narrative awakens digitally stored memories.  But why narrative?  Because through narrative, we construct, reconstruct, in some way reinvent yesterday and tomorrow. Memory and imagination fuse in the process. Even when we create the possible worlds of fiction we do not desert the familiar but subjunctivize it into what might have been and what might be.  The human mind, however cultivated its memory or refined its recording systems, can never fully and faithfully recapture the past, but neither can it escape from it.  Memory and imagination supply and consume each other's wares."[3] Playback can provide an unexpected aesthetic experience, perhaps providing “what you need” in response to your immediate physical state.

3 characters were created that drew on the idea of science fiction but who also reinvented their past through fictional fusion. For example, one of the characters Paul, is an elderly and disenchanted microbiologist who firmly believes that he has evidence of a Martian microbe with characteristics similar to that of green sulphur bacteria. However, in the process of giving a lecture goes mad performing to the Beatles song ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ and turns into the green slime of the ‘Incredible Hulk’.  The stories generated through the characters are about life changing events but it is also the case that the stories in themselves are somehow life-changing. However, if you use the system as designed by Miguel Andrés-Clavera, In-young Cho from the Digital Studios at Goldsmiths in London and Kyoung Chin Seo, PhD Student, Vision & Media Lab. Dept. of Media Technology, Sogang University, Korea, you are asked to populate a database with personal multimedia content (videos, photos, sounds, text). Uploading via a web portal or local computer, each multimedia clip will be described using keywords which you provide. This categorisation is then be used to generate different criteria to retrieve content from the database.   Once the database is populated, the garment becomes a space that will act as a stage for choreographing a “monitored experience”.

The bodily reaction of the user wearing the sensored garment will enable the navigation through the database content. The system will select from the database the objects ad-hoc according to their keywords description matching the criteria. Once the system has selected the content, the information will be displayed, or played, through the garment.

One of WAb’s objectives is consider the relationship between emotional states and information mediated by sensory textiles and networks.

Emotions are physical expressions, often involuntary, related to feelings, perceptions or beliefs about elements, objects or relations between them, in reality or in the imagination. The bio-sensing devices embedded in the electronic textile define the networked query that serves as memory triggers and allow emotions and memories to be conjured up by bio-feedback as metadata. New forms of crafting [I through networks such as WAb’s biofeedback and networked search and retrieval of metadata are to shape our relation to clothing, narrative and memory through networks.


Categorization of Emotions

Emotions are categorized by the physiological data monitored by the sensors embedded in the WAb garment. [4] The Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) and Heart Beat Rate are used as the main source for the categorization.  The GSR indicates the level of excitement (Aroused or Relaxed), and the HBR is used to determine whether the person’s emotion is positive or negative (unpleasant or pleasant). GSR and HBR also determine the degree of emotions (very, middle). Values received from the Temperature Sensor and Respiration Sensor also contribute to the sixteen types emotional states, the main ones divided into Angry (Annoyed, Anxious), Joyful (Euphoric, Elated), Sad (Tired, Bored), and Content (Serene, happy).

Original values from four sensors have different dynamic range respectively. However, all the values are normalized and converted to one byte values between 0 and 255. On the application running on the PDA, the user interactively changes minimum and maximum values of all sensors. Moreover, threshold values for each sensor can be adjusted by users.


The Garment

Barbara Layne’s team at Studio subTela has been involved in the development of intelligent cloth structures and surfaces for the creation of artistic, performative and functional textiles since 2001.  Design considerations for the Wearable Absence garments created new challenges for the team, including the integration of bio-sensing mechanisms with output devices and wireless components.  The process involved combining off-the-shelf electronic components with a variety of adapted connectors and development of soft cabling systems.  Foremost was the desire to maintain a sense of everyday, fashionable clothing that is both practical and comfortable while supporting numerous analog and digital systems. The goal was to create garments that could be worn “normally” without the attachment of special paraphernalia or adhesives.  It was decided to create a female garment that would include handmade approaches and a male garment that would use more commercially made components.  This would provide an opportunity to consider the practical advantages and aesthetic values between hand-crafted and mass-produced approaches to construction.

The integration of several different unobtrusive sensing devices was required to achieve a sufficient number variables to reflect complex physical states and the potential for numerous and unexpected responses. In order to accommodate all devices for input and output, and for communications and power, it was necessary to create a wearable system that included 3 components:  an outer jacket, an inner garment and glove.

The female jacket design was adapted from commercial sewing pattern and constructed by Meghan Price.  The fabric, a black cotton/rayon blend has a chartreuse lining that matches the button, the overstitching on the gloves and the colour of the LEDs on the left sleeve.


Output (Display and Presentation)

A handwoven array of 64 LEDs is embedded into the sleeve and when triggered, features changing text messages.  With the arm down to the side, the text scrolls horizontally, and can be easily read by a viewer.  If the arm is raised, the text automatically switches its directional orientation for optimal viewing by the wearer.  A small pair of high quality speakers are embedded in the hood on the female jacket presenting audio that can support video clips or stand-alone sound files.  An HP-PDA device stored in the pockets of the jackets, serves as the main controller, links to the Internet and presents still and video images.

The male garment features a similar system but includes an outer vest with speakers attached to the shoulders and a commercially-available text display attached to the long-sleeved shirt worn underneath.


Input (Sensors)

Research on available sensing devices was by Hesam Khoshneviss and Diane Morin with assistance by Maryam Golshayan.  Many were investigated and quickly discarded as they proved to be too conspicuous or intrusive (such as blood pressure or brain-wave monitoring devices). Four sensors were ultimately selected, detecting heart rate, galvanic skin response (electrical conductivity of the skin), body temperature and rate of respiration.

The temperature and respiration sensors are attached to a camisole worn under the female jacket.  The cotton knit fabric naturally holds the temperature sensor close to the skin.  Two Merlin™ stretch sensors are located on the upper and lower abdomen and may be adjusted with Velcro for comfort and optimal recordings of the rate of breathing.  The heart rate and galvanic skin response sensors are located on the fingers of the glove.  The heart rate is monitored using an infrared LED and light-to-frequency converter to measure the blood flow that pulses through the body, calculating the number of beats per minute.  The galvanic skin sensor detects the amount of moisture on the skin, which changes according to the state of relaxation or excitation of the wearer.



Working closely with the team, Andre Arnold designed and constructed some of the soft-cabling systems needed to distribute power in the garments.  Rather than using insulated wires, digital signals traveled via conductive threads through stitched channels in the fabric.  The resulting electronic fabric was extremely flexible, lightweight, and aesthetically pleasing.


Power, Computation and Communications

The interior of the jacket features a band of pockets holding a variety of components including Basic Stamp microcontrollers, rechargeable lithium polymer batteries and a Bluetooth wireless device.  The prototype jackets were designed to discreetly support these elements:  in a commercial version much of the weight and bulk could be diminished through custom-designed chips. 


Integrating Systems

The application that runs on the HP-PDA was originally developed at the Digital Studios at Goldsmiths and reconfigured in collaboration with Studio subTela, in order to reconcile the PDA application with the bio-sensors and the microcontrollers embedded in the garments. During this process subTela member Omer Baluch modified the program (with Hesam Khoshneviss) in collaboration with Miguel Andrés-Clavera at the Digital Studios to ensure that the application works seamlessly with the online database and the sensors. Over a two-year period, the collaborative process between the Digital Studios in London and Studio subTela in Montreal involved thousands of electronic communications and numerous physical meetings.  Working across two continents, the challenging process involved a sharing of knowledge between two culturally-mixed, highly interdisciplinary and energetic creative environments. The resulting project extends the potential for interactive garments and the construction and recollection of memory as narrative action.  The combination of the sensual body with perceptive and responsive technologies demonstrate exciting new possibilities for human experience.



[2] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, originally published in 1964 by Mentor, New York; reissued 1994, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts with an introduction by Lewis Lapham, P.122

[3] Jerome Bruner, Making Stories, Law, Literature, Life, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2002), p.93.

[4] Further investigation by psychological researchers might provide a different model, but this system has been developed to test the architecture of the system in relation to memory retrieval. There is no rigorous algorithm to recognize human emotional states.


Sabine Seymour, Fashionable Technology: The Intersection of Design, Fashion, Science, and Technology, (SpringerWeinNewYork, 2008).


Related links

Wearable Absence:

Studio subTela:



Janis Jefferies

Janis Jefferies is Professor of Visual Arts, and an artist, writer and curator with particular research interests in digtial art and sound, the relationship between text, textiles, technology  and access to cultural artefacts through touch and sound.  She is Artistic Director of Goldsmiths Digital Studios, Goldsmiths, University of London, UK.   GDS is dedicated to collaborations among practicing artists, cultural and media theorists, and innovators in computational media, who together are expanding the boundaries of artistic practice, forging the future of digital technologies and developing new understanding of the interactions between technology and society.

Barbara Layne

Barbara Layne is a Professor of Fibres at Concordia University and the Director of Studio subTela, one of the Hexagram Institute’s media arts labs.  The Studio is focused on the development of intelligent cloth structures for the creation of artistic, performative and functional textiles.  She has lectured and exhibited internationally, most recently in The Kaunas Biennale of Textiles in Lithuania, Sensual Technologies at the International Symposia of Electronic Arts in Istanbul, and This Pervasive Day at the Edinburgh Science. The research has been supported with numerous grants including the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, The Canada Council for the Arts, The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Conseil des arts du Quebec.