"UFOS" (Aeolab, 2005)

Interview/Article by Jonah Brucker-Cohen

In the eclectic and young history of wearable technology and fashion, there are few artists that have both challenged the status quo while simultaneously defining the genre. From her background in architecture to the work she created while completing her Masters at the MIT Media Lab's Aesthetics and Computation Group (ACG), to co-founding the design and consultancy company "Aeolab", Los Angeles-based designer Elise Co creates projects that examine the playful side of fashionable tech while also inventing new ways of how electronics can be integrated on the body. From her early work such as "Perforation", which explores how fiber-optics can be used as a window through the body to her later projects like the "UFOS" shoes and the "Lumi-Loop" bracelet, Co's impressive catalog of projects are important reminders that our everyday lives are becoming increasingly inundated with technology. Gizmodo caught up with Co to discuss her past and current work and our increasing reliancy on electronics and gadgets.

Images and Interview after the jump.

Name: Elise Co
Age: 29
Education: Bachelor of Science MIT 1998; Master of Science MIT 2000
Affiliation: Aeolab LLC
Exhibitions: Futurotextiles (Lille, France. 2006)
SIGGRAPH (Los Angeles, CA. 2005)
DesignMai (Berlin, Germany. 2005)
Seamless (Cambridge, MA. 2005)
Museumnacht. NEMO (Amsterdam, Netherlands. 2004)
Samsung Experience, Samsung Time Warner Center (New York, NY. 2004)
Outside/Inside. Banff New Media Institute ( Banff, Canada. 2004)
FEED. (Birmingham, UK. 2004)
Mode. E-Culture Fair (Amsterdam, Netherlands. 2003)
Elise Co @ Plug-In (Basel, Switzerland. 2003)

URL(s): www.mintymonkey.com, www.aeolab.com

GIZMODO: The "UFOS" project (in collaboration with Nikita Pashenkov / Aeolab) are a pair of running shoes that track their wearer's movements in 3D space and generate a pulsing gradient of glowing colors that is unique to each person's stride. What was your impetus for designing the project? Have you learned anything from watching people wear the shoes and how has this feedback shaped future incarnations of the design?


EC: The UFOs were directly inspired by the ubiquitous light-up LED sneakers for little kids, which I coveted for a long time before I found a pair for adults at Wal-Mart. We wanted to take light-up shoes to a higher level in terms of the design and behavior. Incorporating color and smooth, elegant animations was key. It has been interesting watching people wear the shoes and move around in them. For one thing, people really fixate on their own feet and want to see what the shoes are doing. We expected the color patterns to be a reflection/manifestation of the wearer's natural motion, but what's interesting is that people eventually stop moving "naturally" when they wear the shoes. The shoe reactivity sets up a feedback loop whereby the wearer alters her behavior in response to the shoes' response to their behavior. There's a lot of contortion, jumping, and deliberate ankle rotation as the wearer explores the mapping of motion to colored light.

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"Lumiloop" (Aeolab, 2004)

GIZMODO: "Lumiloop" is a bracelet (also in collaboration with NP) that consists of a modular system of LED displays and sensors that detect the wearer's gestural movements to create illuminated lighted patterns and text messages. Why did you choose the wrist as a display mechanism and what are your thoughts on the future of wearable messaging systems?


EC: The wrist is a good place to put technology because people are already used to it with watches. It makes a lot of sense because it's a stable anchor point and easily visible. In terms of wearable messaging systems, I really consider mobile phones almost as a wearable device because they are carried everywhere and heavily involve aesthetics / design as a desirability factor. So there is already widespread wearable messaging system in the form of mobile phones. I do think there is room for this to develop into something more closely integrated with the body, smaller, more portable. I think devices will start to appear, that piggyback onto the existing cell phone technologies and functionality (headsets are an example of how this is starting).

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"MoodMark" (Aeolab, 2006)

GIZMODO: "MoodMark" interjects the concept of browser "bookmarks" into a physical object in the form of rotating lamp with a touch-based dimmer that can record its position and retrieve these coordinates for later use. What was your intention with the project and why was the function of storing location information important for something like a household object?

EC: Moodmark was a product-line concept in collaboration with Sony. In this case, the client really drove the concept. Henry Newton-Dunn at Sony Tokyo came up with the whole interaction scenario. We wanted to explore the idea of smart appliances specifically in the context of the living room. It was important to introduce useful technology while keeping the feel warm and human. In terms of storing information, location (rotation) was only one of the parameters stored/retrieved by the system. There was also light level (on the lamps), speaker configuration, sound volume, and mp3-playlist track. The general idea is that all variable parameters of all living-room appliances can be "bookmarked"- we only built a few devices, though, so there was a limited number of parameters.

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"Puddle Jumper", (Co, 2000)

GIZMODO: The "Puddle Jumper" raincoat utilizes electro-luminescent panels that light up as water lands on and completes the circuit between two concentric rings around the panels. What was the inspiration for this project and how do you envision weather conditions integrating further with the future of fashion design?


EC: Puddlejumper came out of my desire to custom-print electroluminescent (EL) panels. I hand silk-screened the lamps as well as the water sensors. My previous fashion/technology projects had a lot of concept behind them, and for Puddlejumper I just wanted to make something direct and playful. Although I didn't extrapolate at the time, I think that weather is potentially a big motivator for incorporating electronics into clothing. Visibility and safety are obvious justifications for light emitting clothing. A lot of the current research into active textiles centers around temperature control. Protection from the elements is the whole reason for clothing in the first place!

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"Perforation", (Co, 1998)

GIZMODO: "Perforation" employs optical fibers to create a physical "window" though the body , allowing one to look through its normally opaque form. What were you attempting to discover with this work and were you happy with the final outcome?


EC: Perforation was one of those rare instances where a bolt of lightning hits out of nowhere, and an idea springs out fully-formed. I was eating lunch one day, and suddenly thought "What if I made a bundle of optical fibers and routed it around a solid object, with all the ends matched, to make the object invisible?" So I built the project knowing exactly what I was aiming for - to make something solid invisible by literally passing light from front to back and vice versa. I was really happy with how it turned out - Perforation is probably my favorite personal project. I think it's interesting how it creates a void in the body in a very brute-force way. The fiber bundles are really thick and bulky, and I like that so much physical heft goes towards accomplishing what is essentially supposed to be an absence of matter. Another interesting aspect comes from the method of demonstration. To show how light passes (cohesively) from the front panel to the back (or back to front), it's easiest to use flashlights, or to otherwise manipulate the light directly on either of the fiber-end grids. This turns the perforation surfaces into active areas - people focus on them and act upon them. Thus the wearer's torso becomes a site of interaction.

GIZMODO: What projects are you currently working on? How are they similar or different than your past projects?

EC: Aeolab is currently working on several client projects (I have to leave out the client names until the projects are released). Most are installations: an eco-themed installation; a large-scale display wall that incorporates numerous technologies; a reactive light installation; and an interactive high-resolution motion-graphics installation. We're also working on a product prototype (software and hardware) for a client. Our latest projects are quite varied. Some of the technologies we specialize in (like custom solid-state lighting, sensor-based interaction, and network communication) are constants, but the configurations, scale and content are all very different. I haven't generally done client work in the fashion/technology field that most of my earlier projects were in. Aeolab continues to develop our own projects, though. I am building a new version of my Puddlejumper jacket for the Futurotextiles show in Lille, France this year. We have a couple of Aeolab products we've been working on for a while, that we hope to release by the end of the year.