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How Textiles Open Up Data as a Material in and on the Body

How Textiles Open Up Data as a Material in and on the Body

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Tags: Interaction design, Interaction devices

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My research is based on the 15 years of fashion design practice that I combined with HCI research through design. My process starts with a material and that material most often is textiles. Textiles have reached an incredible degree of refinement as fibers, yarns, structures, coating, and garments. Textiles represent a material that is transformed multiple times before becoming the cloth that interacts and becomes a body by the wearer. Textiles are one of humanities earliest experiences of data as the structure is complex but often created computationally with repetitive loops. Textile practitioners use data to transform the structure of textiles. Data is a fundamental part of what a textile is on both phenomenological and post-phenomenological levels.

Is a textile a material or is it made with a material? Most people find it hard to tell the difference. It's hard to describe the textile material unless the data used to create the material is also considered. Consider the process a textile material takes to become the clothes you wear. A yarn is made from materials such as animal hair, plant fiber, metal, insect secretion, artificial fibers, synthetic composites, or more often these days, a mixture or "blending" of materials. Each material is washed, dyed, and chemically treated in ways that change the properties and qualities of the material itself. Fibers are then spun together in calculated ways into yarns that can once again be washed, dyed, and chemically treated to again change their material qualities and characteristics. The yarn is usually woven or knitted using data (occasionally still using the punch cards often used in early computers) and once again washed, dyed, and chemically treated. The cloth is cut and sewn, then there is more washing, dying, and chemical treatment that changes the qualities and characteristics once again.

The materials of textiles can be changed with chemicals at multiple points along their creation. The materials of synthetic and artificial fibers are so complex and small in scale as to be hard for most non-experts to consider. In addition to this high level of complexity, the material's structure can also be changed with data. For thousands of years textile design practitioners have been using systems of categorization to change the structure, appearance, and overall human interpretation of textiles. Many of the terms that we use in computer science come from textiles themselves. This is not a coincidence as textiles have been working with data for thousands of years.

In working with textiles and their material data, they require a certain pattern of thinking that has recently been argued for in artistic research by Marion Lean in her thesis "Materialising Data Experience through Textile Thinking" [1]. We can find more direct HCI examples of using textiles as intermediate knowledge in the work "Portfolio of Loose Ends" [2] where we see the textile process explored. When I am printing shape-changing and data-enabled structures into the flexible materials of shoes I am thinking of the shoes as textiles (see Figure 1). The layers of a 3D print can be seen as stacking textiles. The flexing of the shoe when walking is in many ways like a textile blowing in the wind. If you think about the textile as a series of 1s and 0s defined by the yarns traveling over and under, then it is possible to see data blowing in the wind. Can shoes be made of textiles that are not only created by encoding with data, but somehow change while worn? Can that data be read back into a computational system?

The sense of identity that is created moves past the intentionality of the tool and turns into the intentionality of being.

What is then interesting about textiles is their materiality in the wild from the point of view of the wearer. I like to think of materiality as a post-phenomenological expression of how the person interprets the materials. Most people have no idea what their clothes are made from, yet they can describe the tactile experience. Michael Wiberg calls this the materiality of object and offers a framework of material, details, texture, and wholeness that helps us design for the experience of the thing [3]. Textiles bring an interesting level of complication to the question of material and materiality. Ask most designers what their clothes are made of without looking at the label and most of them will be unable to tell you. Is it the crystal of cotton or the crimped keratin of a sheep hair? The complexity of the textile process requires qualities and precisions that are different in many ways from domains like electronics.

The journey of bringing textiles to HCI research started with trying to make electronic textiles, which lead to the International Symposium on Wearable Computing. The Ars Electronica and the e-Textile Summer Camp [4] communities were spaces in which many practitioners looked for new ways to make textile electronics. But with the ArciInTexETN research project, Koen van Os asked a fundamental question: "Does it have to be electronic?" In that moment I started looking at the things I was making (in this case shoes) as a part of a computational system. Now that the mobile phones in our pockets have LiDAR scanners, capacitive chargers, and plenty of other sensors onboard new questions arise: How do the things we wear (on and in our bodies) become part of a computational system? How do we design interactions, interventions, and experiences with the computational platforms we wear in pockets and on our wrists [5]?

Data as a material is now the point of departure for most of my work. My research groups in the Netherlands have begun to use semantic programing language to make shoes, textiles, and other objects. Moreover, we are observing the wear and use of these objects. Visual-based AI has enabled us to create applications that gather the data of use back, much like how ChromoSkin used reacting makeup as a form of worn computation [6]. There is a large opportunity in HCI and sustainability to look at objects as sources of situated contextual data from the everyday experience of humans and non-humans. Computational life cycle can create iterative cycles where, for example, the data from your current shoes "tells" your new shoes what you need and like. This leads to an ecosystem of computational personalization that is a rich source for machine learning. Encoding materials for iterative processes allows researchers and research products [7] to understand where you as an individual are in your life journey and tailor a shoe to the way you walk, your personal style, and the current fashion trends.

Most HCI technologies are designer embodied technologies; they are tools that are held in our hands that help us solve a problem like the hammer and nail of Heidegger. The iPhone in my hand is a hammer begging for a nail that I can break my screen upon. But how do I hit a nail with textiles? Textiles as clothing are different. As we put them on, we might be thinking about the weather, if it is hot or cold that day. Where we plan to go or what we need to do; if we have a Ph.D. ceremony to attend or if it is a casual day in the lab. But after we dress, the textiles of our clothes create a cyborg relationship as they become part of our identity. The sense of identity that is created moves past the intentionality of the tool and turns into the intentionality of being. Perhaps this is why most of the clothes we wear are made in ways that obfuscates their material properties. When we blend data together with multiple fibers to make a textile, we change the inherent qualities and characteristics to the point that as designers we are no longer asking for the wearer to be able to understand the materials.

The complexity of the textile process requires qualities and precisions that are different in many ways from domains like electronics.

The combination of blended fibers and data thus becomes a materiality that is far more important than the materials used. If we look at clothing from a post-phenomenological perspective, the data used to make that cloth is part of the material. The data is blended together with the other materials that construct the experience of the textile. Data can change structure so that our skin interprets the material in a wholly different way. While that data cannot be worn by itself (unless you are an emperor wearing "new clothes"), when data is blended with other materials, data can become something tangible. What the data brings to the human experience (and perhaps other species as well) is often more significant than the other materials that we classically discuss.

When walking we don't necessarily have to think about every step we take. Walking does not require the same amount of attention as driving. Yet walking and driving are forms of mobility, different in range and speed. Both can be seen as tools that change geographical location logged as data by the numerous companies recording our position from the apps on our phones. But many would say driving a car is an embodied experience. Yet, the car is in many ways an exoskeleton that we strap onto our backs to make us stronger, faster, and shiny. Yet few would say we are wearing a car in the same way a shoe is worn. Peter Paul Verbeek argues for a cybernetic intentionality that can also be found in shoes, clothes, and other worn attire [8]. Why is it that the act of wearing something turns an embodied technology back into a hermeneutic black box technology where the material is unknown and often of little importance to the user? Has research and practice not worked hard to overcome the hermeneutic understanding of technology since the advent of user centered design?

There are exceptions to a more cybernetic understanding of wearing, but most are not textile. Watches, phones, and running shoes occupy a special interstitial area within this idea. Let's take the "phone." which is so much more than a phone. It is in its additional functionality, like sensors that detect if I've been in a car accident or ambient noise tracking, that I see a cybernetic form of technology. It is in in the moments that the technology is worn that a cybernetic intentionality comes forth, like clothes made with data in the textile. Fashion has been designed for a worn cybernetic intentionality of technology for years. So, what happens if we design other technology for a cybernetic intentionality? The cybernetic intentionality is an integrated and unseen feature of the device that makes it like a shoe. In our pocket the phone continues to communicate with other companies, relay our position, and monitor our movement. But if we think about the fact that even our old, dumb phone has been telling cellphone providers all about us in this way since the mid-1990s we can see the cybernetic intentionality in new ways.

But what is next? Decades of knee replacements and neural cuffs have opened new ground to situate materials inside the body—textile, mechanical, electronic, and computational materials. This is especially true in this moment where "in the body" technologies are not entirely stand alone. Although sci-fi authors have solved issues of internal batteries, neural interface, and displays, the reality is pacemakers, insulin pumps, and woven heart stunts have wires running to the out-of-body environment. The latest state-of-the-art digestive track cameras use inductive power and magnetic navigation. But there is a need for more textiles that bring the knowledge of cybernetic intentionality with them.

For example, Swedish startups are developing induction-driven (power and communication) spinal cord sensing. The sensor is only active when an inductive current passes to the device. While it is annoying to think the user (or is it wearer) would have to hold their iPhone against their back long enough to activate the device, it is exciting to imagine car (and other transportation) seats with the technology built in. Imagine an autonomous car of the future that can sense our secondary nervous system through devices in our backs? What could be is a reality where every wearer who uses technology provides data. But in order to use that data and harness the power of the individual; it is important to think of each thing as a research product [7] that is part of the person who wears it (inside and out). This creates new opportunities and challenges that designers, engineers, and HCI researchers will soon answer.

Within my work, I consider personalization through textile thinking. For example, programming 3D printers with G-code and using soft, flexible, elastic plastics that can bend and move with the body. Unlike the typical 3D printing designer, I see my 3D prints as textiles that are often multi-layered and embrace a parametric personalized perspective. When I print shoe soles, I don't see the shoe as something worn on the foot, I see the shoe as a cybernetic extension of the foot. The shoe is the cybernetic textile foot itself. Data from the wearer is used to build the shoe on the foot. The bones, muscles, and ligaments are intersected into the textiles layers that create the cybernetic foot of flesh and data as a material.

Finally, there is another level of abstraction. In William Gibson's 2014 novel The Peripheral, augmented humans have become the accepted norm in a post post-apocalyptic world. Even the jaded public relations anti-technology protagonist cannot imagine life without the phone that was implanted at birth. Connectivity is assumed to be normal in the everyday and cybersecurity is paramount. Humans dress up in period clothing and visit cosplay areas of London to experience pre-apocalyptic life in all its glory. Only radical fringe bohemian "Neo-primitives" refuse cyborg augmentations, vaccinations, and other current technologies so they can experience the "everyday" un-augmented, even exposing themselves to experiences like the common cold. We can look at this novel as a vision of a world where implantable technology becomes commonplace and situated as an everyday design practice. Textile practices of research through design that embrace emergence [9] allow us to use the imaginaries of fiction to conceive new cybernetic intentionality among humans and non-humans alike.

How do we design interactions, interventions, and experiences with the computational platforms we wear in pockets and on our wrists?

One of the questions I find important to answer next comes from Ron Wakkary's Things We Could Design: "What are the levels of technology that shift the constituency of users and more that human constituents?" [10]. This is especially interesting when the thing that is designed is situated inside a person, cybernetically from a textile thinking perspective. In practice we are taking a non-human designed thing and making it part of the human, which leads to: "How does the more than human become informed by the more human than human?" An answer might be, "a designer is also a spokesperson for nonhumans. Designers manipulate, experiment with, and analyze materials of all kinds, from yarns to electronics to digital algorithms" [10].

There is so much for textiles, cybernetics, and research through design to do in, on, and around the body. I look forward to the next 20 years when all these fields come together and meeting many of you at future ACM conferences.

back to top  References

[1] Lean, M. H. A. Materialising Data Experience Through Textile Thinking. Ph.D. Dissertation. Royal College of the Arts, 2020.

[2] Da Rocha, B. G., Andersen, K., and Tomico, O. Portfolio of Loose Ends. In Proceedings of the 2022 ACM Designing Interactive Systems Conference: Digital Wellbeing. ACM, New York, 2022, 527–540; https://doi.org/10.1145/3532106.3533516

[3] Wiberg, M. Methodology for materiality: interaction design research through a material lens. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing 18, 3 (2014), 625–636.

[4] Hertenberger, A., Scholz, B., Stewart, B., Kurbak, E., Perner-Wilson, H., Posch, I., Cabral, I., Qi, J., Childs, K., Kuusk, K., et al. 2013 e-textile swatchbook exchange: The importance of sharing physical work. In Proceedings of the 2014 ACM International Symposium on Wearable Computers: Adjunct Program. ACM, New York, 2014, 77–81.

[5] Zeagler, C. Where to wear it: functional, technical, and social considerations in on-body location for wearable technology 20 years of designing for wearability. In Proceedings of the 2017 ACM International Symposium on Wearable Computers (ISWC '17). ACM, New York, 2017, 150–157; https://doi.org/10.1145/3123021.3123042

[6] Kao, H. L., Mohan, M., Schmandt, C., Paradiso, J. A., and Vega, K. ChromoSkin: Towards interactive cosmetics using thermochromic pigments. In Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI EA '16). ACM, New York, 2016, 3703–3706; https://doi.org/10.1145/2851581.2890270

[7] Odom, W., Wakkary, R., Lim, Y., Desjardins, A., Hengeveld, B., and Banks, R. From Research Prototype to Research Product. In Proceedings of the 2016 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI '16). ACM, New York, 2016, 2549–2561; https://doi.org/10.1145/2858036.2858447

[8] Verbeek, P.-P. Cyborg intentionality: Rethinking the phenomenology of human-technology relations. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 7, 3 (2008), 387–395; https://doi.org/10.1007/s11097-008-9099-x

[9] Gaver, W. W., Krogh, P. G., Boucher, A., and Chatting, D. Emergence as a feature of practice-based design research. In Proceedings of the 2022 ACM Designing Interactive Systems Conference: Digital Wellbeing. ACM, New York, 2022, 517–526; https://doi.org/10.1145/3532106.3533524

[10] Wakkary, R. Things We Could Design. In Things We Could Design: For More Than Human-Centered Worlds. MIT Press, 2021; https://doi.org/10.7551/mitpress/13649.001.0001

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Troy Nachtigall is a designer and design researcher who leads the Wearable Data Studio and Chairs Fashion Technology at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. Nachtigall also continues his research with the Wearable Senses Lab at Eindhoven University of Technology.

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F1Figure 1. Soft, flexible, personalized 3D printed shoes that are made with layers thought of as textiles, personalized to interact with the movement, shape and style of the person.

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xrds_ccby.gif This work is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution International 4.0.

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