STEM researchers collaborate with craftspeople to weave on-skin interfaces

Cindy Kao nd somee research projects

What if you could wear a piece of textile art that expressed your personality or culture and had the ability to communicate with your phone or smart home? New research in the Hybrid Body Lab, led by Director Cindy Hsin-Liu Kao, assistant professor of Design + Environmental Analysis (D+EA), pairs centuries-old craft techniques with cutting-edge technology to innovate the research, design and fabrication of on-skin interfaces that are as unique and expressive as their wearer.

Advances in wearable technology have largely been made by engineers in advanced labs with scant focus on aesthetics, cultural relevance or individual expressiveness, Kao said. They are most often fabricated with specialized clean room processes or digital technologies such as laser-cutting and 3-D printing and tend to look like circuitry, what Kao called a “nerd aesthetic.”

About a year ago, Kao visited a Japanese weaving workshop that has been in operation for 1,000 years and is now in its 12th generation of weavers.

“I was stunned by the skill and the craft involved. I started thinking about the craft of different cultures and how we could bring that craft and expressiveness to these on-skin interfaces,” she said.

Kao invited local textile artists into the lab to weave their own on-skin interfaces using the WovenSkin fabrication process developed by Kao and the undergraduate and graduate students from D+EA, fiber science and apparel design (FSAD), and mechanical engineering who work in her lab.

The weavers decided the interface functions and which patterns to create. One weaver, for example, wanted a touch sensor worn over the heart that would send a text message to a loved one when she touched it. Using a weave pattern she selected for aesthetics and for material functionality, she wove using conductive wires that were connected to a circuit which controlled a Bluetooth unit.

The collaboration, an example of a research-through-design approach that creates prototypes to investigate a design space, yielded unique, functional interfaces, as well as insights into what craftspeople can teach experts in STEM about designing with textiles.

“We quickly saw the importance of working by hand,” Kao said. “In computer science and engineering there’s this fascination with automating everything, but it was an important part of the process for these weavers to feel the texture and improvise with how it would work. That’s hard to distill from an engineering perspective, but is really valuable for figuring out how to integrate these technologies with textiles.”

The resulting research paper was accepted by the competitive Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) Designing Interactive Systems Conference taking place in July, and further awarded a best paper honorable mention, an accolade given to at most 5% of papers according to conference organizers.

“Our paper introduces this new design space that offers any engineer, designer, or maker a way to create on-skin interfaces through weaving. I think the community is really excited at the possibility of bridging this craft that has so much legacy and artistic quality with these new wearable devices,” Kao said.

Including craftspeople in the research space was so successful that Kao decided for her next project she would engage and work with a textile artist from the start. She teamed up with Melissa Conroy, senior lecturer in FSAD and expert knitter, and they brainstormed turning the inherent stretchability of knit textiles into self-stiffening protective gear for high-impact activities and braces for injury recovery.

“Let’s say you had surgery on your lower hip and you’re sitting in a certain posture that might hurt you, this skin layer could stiffen and provide feedback,” Kao explained.

Kao and Conroy recently received a $10,000 grant from Center for Craft to develop these knitted interfaces. They will be purchasing hand-knitting machines to continue their research at home during social isolation, just as Kao’s students in the Hybrid Body Lab have brought home looms to continue their experiments with weaving. She said the ability to work on these interfaces at home highlights another benefit of craft over specialized clean room processes, which require labs that are currently shut down.

“Right now, we’re creating fabrication processes. The next step is creating toolkits that are more scaffolded so that an elementary school student could quickly prototype an interactive temporary tattoo by sticking a couple of modules together,” Kao said. “My long-term goal is to think about how we can democratize on-skin interfaces, so that anyone can make them and decide what they look like rather than a few people in Silicon Valley or in advanced labs deciding our future. Engaging craftspeople is the first step of that.”

The Hybrid Body Lab expresses gratitude to the local textile artists who participated in the on-skin interface weaving workshops. This project is supported in part by the Cornell University PCCW Affinito-Stewart Grant. Students Ruojia Sun ’20 (Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering), Ryosuke Onose (D+EA), Margaret Dunne ‘20 (FSAD), Andrea Ling (D+EA), and Amanda Denham ’19 (FSAD) co-authored the WovenSkin research paper.

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