Which image would calm you down - a slackening rope or a solitary pixel dancer? Hussein Chalayan has brought his stress tracking accessories from Paris Fashion Week to the Design Museum in London and he's rethinking how biometric tech can improve our wellbeing.
The tech obsessed fashion designer has contributed an installation named Room Tone to Fear and Love: Reactions to a Complex World, a group opening exhibition for the museum's new home which is open until next April. Chalayan is showing off not just the connected glasses and belt that he built in collaboration with Intel, but also the emotion inspired visualisations that is produced from the data.
The smartglasses - which house EEG electrodes, a HR sensor on the bridge of the nose and a microphone - and the oversized belt - which processes the data and can project visualisations - don't look much like futuristic, biometric accessories.
Both are black, as some of the final working accessories were in Chalayan's tech-filled Paris S/S 17 fashion show. It's easy to see that each houses technology, though, if you look closely but it's a shame that the wearable tech isn't interactive here.
A model wears the Chalayan accessories at Paris Fashion Week
Your emotions look like this
The main event, then, is the five themed visualisations, presented in the installation as five 35 second videos, sadly not projected onto the wall from the smart belt as at PFW. The broad themes are, of course, fear and love - "the overlap is vulnerability", and the aim of tracking the wearer's stress through biometrics is to then manipulate it with breathing exercises.
Now, the practicality of projecting our emotional state onto nearby walls is low but the designer's visualisations do give us an indication of how we might interact with our quantified self in future. In-app graphs are all well and good for fitness but don't lend themselves so well to emotions like stress, nervousness and attraction.
Each example here a mixture of visual, biofeedback stimulation and good old fashion numbers for breathing, brain activity and heart rate. Chalayan, who is a British-Cypriot, has tweaked these themes for the London setting and in the companion book to the exhibition, he says: "London is not emotionally super healthy... London is the New York of Europe."
The more nervous or shy the wearer is feeling (faster breathing, heart rate etc), the more dancers made up out of big green pixels appear and the faster they move. It's satisfying to watch one dance off the screen.
As the wearer works to breathe regularly to calm down, and the microphone and sensors detect this change, the rope being pulled in two directions becomes less tense.
Stiff Upper Lip
A nice London centric touch, this visualisation is one for anyone who finds it difficult to express their emotions - Chalayan jokes elsewhere that Brits drink too much to avoid this problem. The green square covering or revealing the "English rose" changes size depending on how stressed out the wearer is, in this "simple mind game".
Like Omnipresence, this is another real time, biofeedback graphic for meditation, breathing and tracking focus via the EEGs. More flowers and this time the explanation points to our relationship with nature as a potential de-stresser.
Imminence of Danger
The calmer the wearer can become, the less of a busy crowd will be displayed in this city-inspired visual. The danger in question is the constant threat of terrorism which could be a low level, chronic stress which affects many people.
Expressive tech tools
Alongside Chalayan's work in the exhibition of 11 installations, which suggests that designers, once concerned with objects, are "now increasingly concerned with contexts", are a series of 3D printed death masks from MIT's director of Mediated Matter, Neri Oxman, who created photosynthetic wearable skins in 2015. There's also a 'sentient' industrial robot arm Mimus and a look at the power of proximity hook-up apps like Grindr.
As the installation indicates, Chalayan sees the smart accessories as "expressive tools more than commercial products" so don't expect to buy the set anytime soon. That said, when we spoke to Intel's Sandra Lopez in September, she suggested that designers like Hussein Chalayan, alongside the likes of Fila, New Balance, Baja East and Tome, can influence the rest of the fashion world with ambitious projects like this.
Emotion and stress tracking is only going to grow in 2017. As we personalise watch faces, app backgrounds and in-game characters on our gadgets and connected accessories, wouldn't it make sense to be able to customise precisely how our technology presents our mental state back to us?
Fear and Love: Reactions to a Complex World is at the Design Museum, Kensington High Street, London until 23 April 2017.
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