I Sing the Body Electronic

[This is the first of a three-part series on the “Techno-Body.”  Check Sociology of Style the next two weeks for parts two and three.]

If only Walt Whitman could’ve known how prescient his words were when he sang the “body electric” in the 19th century.  We move ever closer to a body electric – or, as Tomas Maldonado reimagines it, “the body electronic.” We can thank ever-fashionable NASA for a long list of innovations that transform the way our bodies engage with technology: from memory foam (originally used to cushion rocket seats) to titanium alloy sunglasses to insoles to invisible braces, NASA technology has drastically affected the body.  And since Philips Lumalive’s explorations with programmable textiles back in 2006, wearable technology has seemed an inevitable evolution in the merging of technology and fashion. The line between body and machine continues to blur, particularly when it comes to the transmission of information – as this season’s latest novelty accessories demonstrate. The recent additions to the wearable technology category include Adidas sneakers that allow fans to tweet directly to the shoes, and the much-anticipated, uber-hyped, Google Glass(es).  “Project Glass,” as they are officially named, are the ultimate in futuristic, alternative reality products.

Diane von Furstenberg made them a central part of her presence at the recent NY Fashion Week, wearing them herself during the shows, and putting them on the models to offer a different perspective on the fashion world.  Though they will only be launched in limited supply to a few lucky developers in early 2013 (at $1,500 per pair), the rest of us may stand a chance of owning the internet-connected spectacles by 2014 (at a significantly lower price). But Google is not alone in the race to change the way we see and take in information: Sony is experimenting with data-sharing glasses, Olympus’ glasses work with the glasses you’re already wearing, Tobii glasses will track your gaze in real time, Instagram’s “Instaglasses” (still in concept stage) would let you take photos “with your eyes” – and even apply filters to your lenses (you could see the world as one big Hipstamatic image. Rejoice.) Cute Circuit, a London-based “interactive fashion” company, has been experimenting with techno-fashion for years – and its latest brainchild, the tshirtOS, does not disappoint.  The wi-fi enabled, programmable t-shirt has the ability to take photos, display tweets, share music – it’s basically like wearing your smartphone.  (While it’s still in prototype phase, you can “register your interest” here.) Wired clothing and accessories like these evolve with the user during real-time wear, and they offer dynamic capabilities when it comes to aesthetic communication.  Their programmable nature opens the door to fascinating new marketing tactics:  How much would it cost for you to advertise a brand across your back for the day?  [Hint: if you’ve ever worn Polo or Abercrombie or many other heavily logoed brands, you’ve already done it – and you paid them.]  Humans as moving billboards may soon be part of a brand’s approach to grassroots campaigns – especially if the message is hyper-localized and strategically displayed across key influencers. But until these high-tech products are released to the mainstream, check out these slightly less advanced, though still quite clever inventions, all of which give off different types of information in reaction to your body and environment:

  • The Syte Shirt comes in two sizes – one for your smartphone and another for your tablet.  They come with touch-through screens which allow you to program and display information, and also facilitate “lifecasting” (should you want to record and broadcast your daily life).
  • Electric Threads’ sound-activated t-shirts light up when music is nearby, so your shirt can rock out to the beats with you.
  • Athletic gear is always ahead of the curve when it comes to merging fashion and technology (Dis Magazine did a great spread on the intersection of high-fashion and technical gear), and the Saucony Drylete jacket includes a USB LED light to signal your presence to those around you and ensure safety while you’re in motion.