How future fashion could help us cope with isolation

Ruben Baart
April 29th 2020

Today we cannot meet, touch or hug our loved ones. And while we all like the feeling of the touch of another human being, physical contact does not just feel nice, it is crucial for our health, too. Touch is the first of the senses to develop in the human infant, and it remains perhaps the most emotionally central throughout our lives. It also provides its own language of compassion, a language that is essential to what it means to be human.

Now that the sensation of touch temporarily is ‘disabled’ in our lives, wearable technology may offer new opportunities for us to physically connect. We therefore caught up with fashtech designer Jasna Rok, who has worked with astronauts at NASA to develop (Re)Connect; a sentient garment that identifies—and tracks— emotions and translates these into wearable technology that changes color and shape… and has the ability to transmit physical touch.

For most people, the current situation leaves us with an unusual, unprecedented and unsettling set of circumstances. Who better to turn to for advice on coping with isolation than those whose jobs entail long periods of it – astronauts. You have some experience in working with astronauts from your time at NASA. What can astronauts teach us about isolation and quarantine?

Space confronts us with many fascinating worlds and phenomena. As Pam Weintraub writes:

“Imagine being confined to a metal cell with a couple of other people and few amenities for months or even years. Maybe after that, you’ll be moved to a new compound, but you still have no privacy and extremely limited communication with your family and anyone else in the outside world. You feel both crowded and lonely at the same time, and yet no one comes to treat your emerging mental-health problems.”

A growing body of research now shows the impact of Covid-19 on one’s brain and body, along with the medical attention needed to heal from it. But factors such as (social) isolation, limited privacy and interpersonal issues, along with vast separation from loved ones and not being able to say goodbye—these remain relatively unexplored.

So if anything, astronauts are able to educate us by simply explaining what they do. As they’re living their lives in [albeit interplanetary] isolation for a living.

Photo by Ellie van den Brande

What can fashiontech design do to help astronauts cope with isolation?

Consider this. On Earth, verbal communication uses sound. Astronauts may not be able to rely on sound for communicating in space. Spacecrafts are rather noisy due to the heavy machinery on board used for life support and research. And speaking through spacesuit radios or the artificial atmosphere inside a spacecraft changes voice quality enormously.

Body language like facial expressions, tone and posture aids nonverbal communication. Nonverbal communication increases trust. It strengthens relationships, but weightlessness gives astronauts a puffy face—which as a result can distort facial expressions. Differences in cultures may also lead to misunderstandings.

Therefore I’m working with a team of researchers to explore whether clothing could communicate the wearer’s emotions in order to help improve both verbal and nonverbal communication in space. The result of this research, (Re)Connect, is aimed at sparking the debate on how space suits could help astronauts manage their well being in space.

The clothes we wear are already being used to communicate style, culture, and roles. Albeit nonverbally. (Re)Connect then, is emotionally smart clothing that communicates emotions. It’s the first wearable prototype that identifies—and tracks— emotions and translates these into wearable technology that changes color and shape… and has the ability to transmit physical touch.

Photo by Ellie van den Brande

There seems to be a misconception around the terms ‘social distancing’ and ‘physical distancing’. Personally I believe people should not socially distance themselves but rather physically; distancing does not have to alienate people, it brings new opportunities for people to (re)connect. What can fashiontech design do to help us (being non-astronauts) cope with isolation?

I totally agree, physical distancing doesn’t mean you should distance socially. Especially today it’s even more important to keep those you hold dearly close. Future fashiontech applications could definitely help you do this.  

An emotional intelligent garment like (RE)Connect would be useful to cope with the situation we're in and to connect on deeper levels. Sending hugs to your grandfather who's alone in quarantine. We can start to look at things from a completely new perspective, with more authenticity, vulnerability, sensitivity and transparency.

In times like these it’s also important to be silent, reflect, learn and improve ourselves. Today we cannot meet, dance or hug. Our physical contact is limited.

The emotionally intelligent garment certainly holds to possibility to not only affect space travel, but it may also create new ways of communication on Earth—as we now need it more than ever!

Photo by Isaac Ponseele

Your work seeks to expand the possibilities of creative applications and innovation for the future of wearable technology. Yet, rather than focusing on the physical body, you focus on the notion of emotional intelligence. Can you elaborate on this idea (and urgency) of emotional intelligence?

Emotions are a universal language. No matter if you speak Arabic, Chinese or French, we all know what it feels like to be sad or to lose somebody. Regardless of the color of your skin, or what you believe in, this is what unites us as a species. We are all humans. And if we work together as a collective, we can accomplish amazing things, think of the first moon landing! To work together as one, to have empathy and to increase emotional intelligence; these are the most treasurable skills we should all be improving right now.

I wish people would embrace each other more.

Photo by Isaac Ponseele

In our previous chat, we spoke about clothing as an interface to the outer world, able to receive responses to our innermost feelings. Clothing can therefore add a new dimension of interaction and the communication of self-expression, and how we deal with our identity. During the homestay, I find myself walking around in PJs all day — caring less about the way I self-express. How may tech-driven garments influence our wellbeing on an individual level?

Fashion offers unique and personalized experiences to all, augmenting us as people and enabling communication on previously unknown levels. It enables humans to create more tangible connections and teach them how to apply this newly gained knowledge on themselves and others.

These tech-driven—or as I like to call them—sentient garments can act as a smart fashionable augmented skin, enveloping the individual with an intimate and expanded perception of himself/herself (health, emotions, thoughts), people, things, the world, and other communicating garments. (Re)Connect is a perfect example of emotion-tech, as a first of its kind emotion-identifier; it is augmenting the individual on an emotional level and is creating new forms of empathic communication. I call this empathic augmentation. It makes us much more aware of our inner state of being.

How does it work?

It works by tracking emotions through speech and translates this into morphing fashion. It gives real-time visual and haptic feedback to the wearer and its environment. By feeling the emotional feedback we can not neglect or suppress these emotions anymore. We need to look at them, listen to them and embrace them as part of who we are. Connecting with your own feelings, makes you much more self aware of who you truly are and makes you much stronger on a long term. Clothing can, therefore, add a new dimension of interaction and the communication of self-expression, and how we deal with our identity. Neuroscience​ is teaching us that ‘s​elf-expression’​ might be one, if not the most important way, for people to connect, navigate and grow with each other. 

In times like these, we need to take extra care of our emotional well being, as it impacts our immune system as well. Sentient garments could therefore help people deal with emotions like fear, grief or sadness, which are unfortunately very omnipresent right now. Think losing your loved ones, feeling imprisoned, raising children next to teleworking, not being able to hug your grandparents…

If we’re able to transfer emotions through visual ánd haptic feedback, a completely new world opens up. You wouldn’t always have to explain how you feel to your partners, kids or friends, but you could literally share it with them through a sentient garment. It would simply make us more empathic.

Photo by Lennert Degelin

You have a strong view on how in the future, we may wear just one garment. Can you share your ideas of having one unique garment that becomes a living organism on its own. This then means the garment gains a form of agency to which we, as humans, have to relate to. How will such an ecosystem work? And how will it be maintained?

The next step in the future of fashion will be real ‘artificial’ intelligent garments. Cells in a neural network, communicating with each other, reacting together to triggers or stimuli from the environment, discovering patterns and order. The formation of neural networks in fashion design could become the brains of the future.

Garments become a living organism on their own; an extension of our bodies. Garments start a new way of human communication. They reshape our responses to our innermost feelings. It's a brand new dimension of interaction.

Photo by Jason De Brandt

Can you give an example from your own research?

We’ve been working with nanotechnology to create hydrophobic textiles. These textiles are stain resistant and water repellent, with the main goal to create garments that you don’t need to wash anymore. We’ve also been working on printed garments with flexible electronics, implemented with VR and AR.

By pushing these kinds of boundaries, and connecting different technologies to fashion, I discovered a lot of new things can be applied in different domains. Maybe not tomorrow, but perhaps the day after or in the near future.

We may have not all these garments to choose from, but we only need one garment…

Similar to having one smartphone. I envision ‘the one garment’ to be able to change form, color, regulates its own temperature, always stays clean, is made of antiviral textiles and is connected to your brain.

Photo by Jason De Brandt

By when can we expect this?

Well it may take some time. At current, the fashion industry is mainly focussed on single trends (new colors, forms, technologies etc.). But it is always exciting to add new things.

This means over time you will be able to add things. Imagine with each Christmas or birthday you can get a new sensor or output (lights, colors, inflatables; an antiviral coating) for your garment! This future smart garment is like a blank canvas on which you can upload novelties (service based) and add gadgets (product based). For example a nanotech coating that protects your garment from rain, stains and UV.

Photo by Lennert Degelin

What role do you think (or hope) clothing will play in our lives after the corona crises?

First let’s take a look at the bigger picture. I believe the fashion industry and its economic system need to change. Over the last few years, we have become increasingly conscious about the impact fast fashion has on the people working in the industry and on the environment as well. As the second most polluting industry, it needs systemic change and hopefully we’ll look back at this crisis and see this was the tipping point towards a more sustainable production and consumption of fashion.

Each step in the fashion supply chain is in need of digitization and innovation , preferably a ‘close the loop’ system, in which each part of the supply chain is connected with each other. 

In the short term, I believe new raw materials and coatings like antiviral and antibacterial, odorless, sensors, energy harvesting systems embedded in our textiles should become a new standard in fashion. Imagine all fashion labels and designers design their collections in a digital way right from the start (by using tools, such as photorealistic 3D scanning, modeling, pattern drafting software ) and virtual or augmented reality to create digital clothing. Or as a filter!

We would be able to have a digital online wardrobe. For the next online zoom or Skype meeting we might show up in that red velvet Chanel dress that we couldn’t afford in real life; but could download as a filter.

A next step towards the one garment to rule them all.

In these bizarre times it's important to keep on dreaming. Did you know that dreaming means the same thing as gazing at the stars?

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