Care To Slip Into Something More Digital?

MIT plans to unveil a collection of wearable computers

It's the ultimate in portable computing: clothing that incorporates elements of a computer right into wearable designs. But is the fashion world ready for geek chic?

On Oct. 15, a group of cyberfashion pioneers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Laboratory will find out when they present a bona fide fashion show of wearable computers. Part academic conference and part fashion preview, the show will bring together computer-science PhDs and clothing company execs to watch Barbizon models strut around in designs by aspiring fashion designers whose fanciful creations give new meaning to the term "software."

TRANSLATOR. Some of the world's best-known fashion designers and clothing makers are scheduled to be on hand. Executives and designers from Nike, Levi Strauss, and Swatch maker SMH Swiss, all three Media Lab sponsors, will be in the audience. The clothes on display--from a music synthesizer woven into a dress to a tunic that translates the wearer's words into a foreign language--are just concepts now. But the folks at the Media Lab predict that wearable computers may turn up on the sidewalks of Rome, Tokyo, New York, or San Francisco in the next five years.

A band of Media Lab grad students is already testing the idea of wearable technology, carrying around lightweight, low-power computers and wireless network connections in backpacks and fanny packs that keep them online all day long. But their devices are clumsy compared with the sleek designs created by the fashion students from France, Italy, Japan, and New York, who visited the Media Lab this summer to examine the students' gear.

What makes cyberfashion possible today is the convergence of several technologies. With digital cellular phones, you can stay connected to the Internet wherever you roam. Lithium batteries help reduce the weight burden of mobile computing. The technology for miniature computer screens planted at the edge of a pair of glasses has improved dramatically. "All these obstacles are vanishing," says Alex P. Pentland, a Media Lab professor and part-time fashion impresario.

The clothes aren't cheap. But for $2,500 to $4,000, well-heeled nerds can put together the basic ensemble: a small central processing unit on a belt, a cellular modem, a handheld mouse-and-keyboard combo, and the Lilliputian monitor.

A bigger challenge is designing cyberduds that people might actually want to wear. But the designers at the Media Lab fashion show may be on to a new fashion aesthetic. "People have always had a fascination with making themselves personally more powerful," says Pentland. "We used to associate that with magic. Now, we're getting close to working that magic into fully realized designs."

Some of the designs use special conductive thread woven into the clothing to carry low-voltage signals from one part of the system to another. One student has developed a fabric keyboard to be sewn onto blue jean jackets donated by Levi Strauss and connected to small computers powered by 9-volt batteries tucked into interior pockets.

Next, the fashion students will try using circuitry woven right into clothes, using conductive thread to reproduce in flexible form a printed circuit board. It kind of gives a whole new meaning to the term "wired."