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High (tech) fashion: how WOW pushes the boundaries of wearables

With WOW in town, Wellington is the centre of the wearables world. Anne Niemetz, senior lecturer in Media Design at Victoria University, and a designer fascinated by the convergence of art, science, design and wearable technology, discusses the past, present and future of wearable tech. 

WOW, or World of Wearable Art, is undoubtedly New Zealand’s most spectacular stage show, expected to reach 60,000 people in a 16-day run. Now in its 29th year, this celebration of innovative design showcases 122 designers from 13 countries, and features costumes made from bicycle tubes, LEDs, plastic tubing and UV paint. Callaghan Innovation's C-Prize 2017 is focused on wearable technology to improve our everyday lives, so we took the opportunity to speak to a Wellingtonian with her feet in both camps, to better understand the ever-changing relationship between fashion and function.

Anne Niemetz is a senior lecturer in the Media Design programme at Victoria University of Wellington. She is also a renowned media artist and designer, who works in the fields of wearable technology, interactive installation and audio-visual design.

HOW DID YOU GET INTERESTED IN WEARABLE TECHNOLOGY?

I have Media Arts degree from the Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung Karlsruhe, where I focused on digital media and interactive sound installation. But I guess it was really during my Masters, which I did at the University of California Los Angeles in 2002 that I first started to work on wearables. And that means I've been working in the area for over 15 years!

HAS THE SECTOR CHANGED MUCH IN THAT TIME?

Absolutely! Wearable technology as a field has been around since before I was working in it, but it was a fairly niche area, mostly because of technological limits. For me, it’s really expanded since around 2006, when Arduino technology started appearing on the market. Before that, you could only really get access to sensors, microcontrollers, prototyping boards etc., if you had lots of technical knowledge and money to spend. As a result, the wearable devices around then were fairly experimental. With so many low-cost, easy-to-use components now available, the barrier to entry has been significantly lowered. It’s really down to accessibility – people who don't program are no longer excluded, and the shrinking sizes make the resulting systems more wearable. Getting power to devices is usually a big concern but even our approach to that is slowly changing.

FOR SOMEONE NOT FAMILIAR WITH IT, WHY IS WOW SUCH A BIG DEAL HERE IN NZ?

I’m not a WOW spokesperson. I’ve been lucky enough to be involved as a designer, and I bring my students along every year, but from my viewpoint, it’s an institution, and a source of national pride for New Zealanders. Talented designers from all backgrounds compete for a spot in the live show, which is unlike any other in the world. It is a true spectacle, and something that everyone should see at least once.

HOW WOULD YOU GET YOUR STUDENTS READY TO ENTER A COMPETITION LIKE WOW?

Generally, we’ll start by inviting someone from WOW – usually the director – to come in and give a guest lecture to the students. We’ll also watch videos and look at portfolios from previous years to get inspiration. Then the students will do their own research in order to produce a project proposal, before they start working on the garment. I advise them from the beginning to the end, but I also make sure that they really work on something they’re interested in. It’s a fine line between sharing your knowledge with design students and forcing your own ideas onto them. And actually, sometimes they inspire me too!

ARE WEARABLES A ‘NEW’ THING?

No, not at all. A hundred years ago there was a real trend for wearable gadgets in high society. For example, there was a top hat that had a camera in it. You'd take the hat off and put it in front of your belly and then through that you would point the camera and take secret photos. So people have long been interested in that interface between humans and technology.

WHAT ROLE DO YOU THINK WEARABLE TECHNOLOGY COULD HAVE ON THE LIVES OF NEW ZEALANDERS?

I know that if I look at my students, wearables – usually in the form of fitness trackers or smartwatches – have already been integrated into their lives. But I think it will become increasingly more normal. And for good reasons too! Our healthcare sector would benefit from data collected by wearables. Or think about traffic safety – in many cases, safety devices already exist, but they could be designed better, to make them more fashionable and more attractive, and therefore more likely to be worn. My suspicion is that wearables will also become more seamless, so that we barely notice how much technology’s crept into our lives. It will only be in hindsight that we recognise the transformation that it’s brought. I think we’ll also see a wider adoption of fashion-focused wearables, like LED eyelashes, or hairbands that have ears on them that move to reflect the wearer’s behaviour. Wearables can be fun too!

This story was originally published on Callaghan Innovation's C-Prize blog