back to articles list »

Interview: PING Hoodie Designer Jennifer Darmour

I had the pleasure of meeting Jennifer Darmour of Electricfoxy.com at SXSW and the Smart Fabrics Conference this year. She is the beauty and brains behind electricfoxy.com, a site that investigates the aesthetics and influence of garments that have electronics built directly into them.

Jennifer is also the designer of the lovely and intelligent Ping Hoodie. A stylish hoodie that connects to and updates your Facebook account wirelessly and from anywhere.  In her words, "It allows you to stay connected to your friends and groups of friends simply by performing natural gestures that are built into the mechanics of the garment. Lift up a hood, tie a bow, zip, button, and simply move, bend and swing to ping your friends naturally and automatically. No phone, no laptop, no hardware. Simply go about your day, look good and stay connected."

Here, Jennifer talks about the Ping Hoodie, how she got started with interactive fashion, and her thoughts on the design, marketing, and future of fashion technology. 


{AL}What inspired you to work with fashion technology and create electricfoxy.com

{EF} I’ve been getting asked that question a lot recently. And what I’ve been sharing is that I come from a family of makers, designers and inventors. In fact, my great grandfather invented the revolving door among hundreds of other products and innovations, so naturally I lean toward inventing and design. My professional background is in user experience, interaction and software design. In the software industry, there is a trend toward developing “Natural User Interfaces” that allow you to interact with technology in very natural ways. A good example of this is the iPhone that is incredibly easy to use and feels natural to interact with.

In the gaming industry, there is a push toward spatial gestures that you can perform using body movements. For example, the Nintendo Wii and the Playstation Move allow you to interact and navigate by moving your hand and even your entire body around. You can think of those devices essentially as a computer mouse that you hold and move around in the air. With this trend popping up, I’ve been intrigued by the idea of spatial gesturing and have been exploring ways to make interacting with the software that we use more subtle, natural and mobile.

Outside of my profession, I have a personal passion around fashion. Fashion is a way for people to express themselves in many different ways and in the context of their culture. And if you look around at how people wear and interact with their clothes, there’s already built-in mechanics. People already perform a variety of gestures adjusting, zipping, lifting, shifting, opening, buttoning and even fidgeting with the garments they wear. This gives fertile ground to merge the mechanics of the clothes we wear with technology and the trend of gesture-based interaction.

As a result, Ping is an example of how we can use our clothing to interact with our technology. You can think about our clothes as another “device” that can replace the computer mouse. With Ping, rather than having to hold a device in your hand, you can perform the gestures that you would naturally do anyway based on our clothing mechanics. I wanted to turn these movements and gestures into interfaces that allow us to connect with our friends and family and allow us to express ourselves in new and unique ways. And of course, if technology is going to be part of our clothing, then the solution must have appeal. Not only should it function well, it should look good and make people feel beautiful.


{AL} Unlike many technologically enhanced garments, I noticed that your product photos are highly fashionable and photoshoped like the photos you see of women in fashion magazines. Why did you take this aesthetic approach?

{EF} With fashion, there is an entirely different set of challenges beyond just the functionality. Fashion is about lifestyle, it’s about self-expression, and it’s about creating an identity for yourself within the context of your culture.  There are a lot of wearable technology concepts out there that are both useful and solve real problems, but fail to take the lifestyle and fashion aspect into consideration. In the case of Ping, I adopted the visual language of high fashion photography to provide a vision and change the perception of “wearable technology”.


{AL} when I saw the photos for the Ping Hoodie, I thought it was you. Is it? If not, who is your model and how did you approach the photo shoot for this interactive garment?

{EF} Well, now you’re going to make me blush. The woman in the photos is a professional model. When capturing the essence of the product, the right model can make all the difference. Photo shoots are about the team that you put together and in the fashion industry, a lot of the coordination is by experience and referral only. If you’re just starting out, my recommendation is to find a good photographer who can work with the style that you want and who has a history of working with great models. Finding the right model and having the right style of photography can really emphasize the look you’re after.


{AL} The photos of Ping are beautiful, but like many tech-enhanced fashions, it is hard to tell what Ping does unless you read the copy. How do you suggest clothing companies and designers handle the challenge of displaying and communicating the interactivity of a garment?

{EF} This is a very important and age-old communication question. With products that have many complex parts such as any wearable technology product, it is important to set the tone and style of the garment that can help enhance and extend the brand, and it is equally important to have a communication tool that illustrates the functionality clearly. One aspect of the project that I have not added to my project site yet is a video demonstration. Videos are a superb communication vehicle to clearly describe potentially complex interactions. And there are editing techniques such as cutting between different perspectives, which allow you to tell the story in a very rich way from the perspective of different users and different interactions. This is something that I’m currently working on for Ping and should be part of interactive projects.


{AL} You are currently working at Artefact and developing user experiences for products such as Xbox, Microsoft Surface, Windows Mobile and many other products.  I am curious to know if there were any noticeable differences for you when you moved from creating a screen-based application to making a material object like Ping?

{EF} I have been investigating wearable technology combined with software for a while now so moving from screen-based applications to a material objects is second nature. User experience design in general is not just about designing for a screen. It’s about designing experiences across many devices, platforms, services, contexts, inputs, and material objects. It is about considering the experience within the entire ecosystem that is created and in the case of Ping, the garment is just one aspect.


{AL} There are different design processes of creation when working with technology then with working with fashion. What was your process of creating the Ping Hoodie? Where did you start? At what point did you start integrating the technology and how did you bring it all together?

{EF} This is part of the challenge with wearable technology that requires two completely different industries with different design methods to merge. Each has a different vernacular, different design process, different implementation and manufacturing process, and even a different marketing and distribution process. With Ping both aspects informed each other equally and there needed to be enough flexibility in the design process to allow for this. For example, from the fashion side, I wanted the garment to be soft, fluid, and have a sense of sports-fashion and active wear.This required certain fabrics that ultimately affected the kind of technology that could be used. The original conductive thread that I used in the test circuit was much thicker than what could be handled by the delicate fabric that I wanted to use in the garment. This resulted in moving toward an entirely different conductive thread that had completely different technical properties. On the flip side, the technology informed the aesthetic of the garment where everything that was functional was indicated in yellow material that was strategically placed to help give it a sporty look. With wearables, it will be imperative that both the fashion and technology disciplines be flexible and allow each other to inform the final design.


{AL} What part of the process of making the Ping hoodie was the most rewarding and what part was the most challenging?

{EF} The most rewarding was trying to figure out how to merge fashion with technology, which was also the most challenging. Another challenge was establishing a reliable two-way communication with Facebook in a way that enabled the interactions that I wanted in the garment. This required custom software and a lot of trial and error to get it right.

{AL} You've been getting a lot of positive press throughout the blogosphere. Why do you think there has been such positive reaction to your idea?

{EF} You can analyze what the press likes extensively. What I think is important with wearable technology in general is to strike a balance between functionally, usefulness, and marketability. There are many variables that need to be considered and if you can develop solutions that combine these well, it will draw attention.

{AL} On your site, you refer to making "garments." Is this the first iteration in a line of garments? What are the future plans of Electricfoxy?

{EF} It’s really starting to be an exciting time for wearable technology. I attended the Smart Fabrics conference in Miami last week discussing trends and innovations in wearable technology and e-Textiles. There are so many possibilities for these types of products and services, especially in the health and wellness, sports and medical industries. We will see some interesting innovations in this space in the near future and I plan to be part of it.

Comments

it's so inspirational to see really cool eClothes like this! it makes me wish i had more time to play. i can't wait to see what you ladies do next!

relevantspeck

Monday, April 26, 2010 - 12:22