Want to take a peek into a future where fashion meets technology? Check out Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman’s BioWear Project. A conceptual fashion accessory made of stretch leather, feathers, a few silk ties, a heart rate monitor and some electronic circuitry, it is worn like a stole.

However, where it differs from a regular scarf is in its response to the environment. Yes, you read that right. This inanimate object reacts!

Embedded sensors in the accessory detect even subtle variations in the wearer’s heartbeat, triggering the feathers to move in different patterns and speeds ‘not unlike a dog wagging its tail to reveal its emotions’, says Rebeccah. The feathers even begin to ruffle when the wearer becomes distressed.

The adjunct associate professor of fashion and industrial design at the Pratt Institute, a top art and design school in the US, calls it ‘one of my best achievements’.

‘Instead of your clothes being just something that covers your body or makes you look good, BioWear is meant to make people think about what else your clothes can do for you; how else you can interact with your clothing and how your clothing can make you be a more authentic person,’ she says.

Rebeccah, who will be attending ECHO Dubai, the three-day art, design and technology festival that kicks off on December 14 at the Dubai Design District, says that while some people hide their feelings, ‘[BioWear] shows everyone what you are feeling, your moods and your reactions to things or situations. It’s a piece of clothing that can create connections between people’.

Rebecca will be conducting an e-textile workshop titled An exploration of wearable media on December 14 and 15 from 10 am to 7 pm at d3 during ECHO Dubai.The workshop will help participants get started in the world of e-textiles, encourage them to critically evaluate the why of wearables as they explore creative solutions that they will prototype. There will also be session where they can critically discuss various applications of wearable technology and tie these actuations to the functions of various biosensors.

At the cutting edge of creating wearable technology using smart textiles, Rebeccah, who has over two decades of experience in fashion and industrial design, believes clothing should do more than just sit on our body. ‘It should actually do some work with our bodies,’ she says.

To that end she is keen to slip into smart textiles.

‘Wearable smart textiles are much more than regular textiles,’ says Rebeccah, who has been design director at Fila USA, Champion and Nike. ‘They can transform, gather data, morph from one state to another, monitor your body’s vital stats ... communicate, transform and even grow.’

Think LED-embedded cocktail dresses that display your tweets, jackets with circuitry that showcase digital patterns, suits with ventilating flaps that open and close in response to the wearer’s body heat and sweat, tees with embedded medication to help those with skin conditions. There’s even a Hug Shirt that allows you to send a virtual hug to your loved one via Bluetooth.

Last year, a bomber jacket was unveiled on the European catwalk that has an Near-field communication chip and a personalised QR code embedded in it. The chip and code act as a VIP pass to events and unlock gifts at certain stores.

A fibre-optic tutu designed by Rebeccah was part of the costume used by the cast for the premiere of The Brooklyn Nutcracker at the Brooklyn Museum last December.

Experts predict that by 2030 wearables will become obsolete; instead, smart textiles will be the trend.

She cites sectors and jobs where advances in smart textiles are paying off richly. ‘In the military, for instance, the soldiers’ smart uniforms can help heal wounds, transmit data so they can be monitored at all times and collect data about the health condition of the wearer in real time,’ says the designer, who also works closely with her students on Nasa projects creating more adaptive space suits for astronauts.

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‘An astronaut needs to wear a space suit and it requires an incredible computation of data derived from the astronaut to keep him alive. Like a soldier, he is a high-value asset. Vast amounts of money are riding on him. They need to be protected.’

Athletes, too, benefit from smart textiles, she says. ‘They need to have a lot of info about their body available to them to be able to perform at the highest level,’ says Rebeccah. ‘I’ve worked in all of these areas creating tech wear because there is clearly a need for it.’

If one area of her work is creating practical uses for wearable technology, ‘another aspect of my work is more artistic,’ explains the designer. ‘It’s quite in line with the ECHO Dubai festival where elements of art, design and environment come together. I do work that makes you think of what wearable tech is and what it would be to want to put tech on your body.’

But in the race to produce even more fanciful tech costumes, are we getting too involved in technology?

‘It’s a question I often ponder over,’ admits Rebeccah. ‘But remember wearable technology has been around for a long while. Your glasses are probably one of the first pieces of wearable tech.’

There’s a fine line between practical uses of wearable technology and information overload. ‘I see the future of wearable technology reaching a point where the data takes care of itself. We are starting to see that with the advent of artificial intelligence.’

The culmination of wearable technology is when it gets embedded in fabric. ‘At the moment it is in bits of hard tech – pads, sensors, labels or hard electronics,’ she says.

‘Technology embedded in a flexible fabric you wear will harvest data from your body and the environment, and get it processed with artificial intelligence. Since you don’t have to use your brain to compute the data your cognitive load is less. That is the future of smart textiles.’

Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman works with smart fabrics
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Rebeccah feels there is a lot that everyday consumers can engage in with smart textiles.

‘The expressive side is huge,’ she says. ‘There’s a lot you can do.’

A major area is health related, an extension of her work at NASA and the US military and with athletes. ‘There is a tremendous number of people with health issues.’

While the population is ageing, there will be a lot of people in care homes, there are also a lot of people who are young at heart but have health issues, says the designer.

‘Wearable tech and especially smart textiles can monitor and record small changes in your body, very small changes, that are crucial and could be early markers for certain conditions and diseases that can be managed or caught early. Wearbale tech can collect that data from your body.’

She envisions a piece of fabric that could be embedded in your shoes or socks for instance or even in the upholstery of your dining room chairs that could record slight variations in your body’s vital statistics over a period of time, which could indicate the onset of certain medical conditions. ‘They could make you aware that it is time for you to take a check up or meet a doctor,’ she says.

Smart fabrics could also help those who have a medical condition. ‘Smart tech can help you manage your disease in such a way that it does not really impinge upon your day-to-day lifestyle. Testing blood sugar, for instance. Smart fabrics can test it at regular intervals. You don’t have to stop everything and extract some blood and get the testing done. These smart tech textiles can do it for you. It will monitor your blood and and tell you when you need to medicate,’ she says. In fact, if programmed well, the textile itself might administer doses of the medication at fixed intervals.

Such technology can help those who have a chronic condition enjoy a regular life without having to be caught up in remembering dates for regular check ups and ensuring various medical statistics are constantly monitored. ‘The data can even be transferred to your healthcare provider, saving you on the time and probably even your life,’ says Rebeccah. ‘You can have the device doing the thinking for you so you can instead use that time to do something more enjoyable or creative, for instance.

Are there any challenges to such advancements?

‘The biggest challenge is that the two industries involved - technology and garment making - are huge. The garment industry is pretty set in its ways and it rides on billions and billions of dollars. The electronics industry may not be as old but has similar supply chains. And both are kind of opposed to each other. One doesn’t like water and is hard while the other needs to be washed, can get dirty easily and is flexible. Trying to get them together is like manoeuvering two giant cruise ships in the ocean. We are asking them to be like jet skis. I think that is the biggest challenge,’ she says.

‘We need to make designers and entrepreneurs find a seamless way for these to work together; for circuits to be flexible and stretchable, get wet and be washable. For garments we need to be able to figure out when in the process of weaving do the electronics get embedded.’

But in allowing so much gadgetry to intrude into our lives, are we becoming slaves to technology?

If it is, it’s because of FOMO (fear of missing out), says Rebeccah, who attributes it to our over reliance on technology.

‘I think FOMO gets to everybody. It grabs everybody and has a residual effect. Fomo is when you are relaxing and looking at social media and you realise that everyone seems to be having so much fun and you begin to wonder why you are not and so you begin to get in with them.’

She believes it’s crucial to cultivate a sense of discipline, and know when to shut things off and get a grip on life. ‘I think it’s important that there’s this divide between the value of what technology can bring and the danger of what technology can bring,’ she says.