The New School News

The New School + SXSW: Wearable Tech, Designed for Social Good

Nitcha Tothong, MFA Design and Technology ‘16, was working on a graphic design project one day last year when her back started hurting. The culprit? The inordinate amount of time she spent slouched over her computer.

“I realized that people change their physical behavior when interacting with their devices,” Tothong says. “We’re sitting all day at our computers, living this sedentary lifestyle. Our devices force us to do unnatural postures. We do this unconsciously.”

Tothong wants to restore awareness of our bodies, to “recreate the mind and body connection” that has been lost in our physical interactions with our digital devices. To that end, she created Keybod, a computer keyboard worn on the upper body that forces wearers to be mindful of their typing practice and posture.

It is one of many projects designed for social good that are being presented by Parsons School of Design students at #SXSW Interactive. On view Friday through Sunday at the Saxon Room at the Westin Downtown Hotel, the projects, created by students in and alumni of Parsons’ MFA Design and Technology and Fashion programs, embody ​the school’s human­-centered approach to technology and commitment to confronting real­-world problems. 

“Whenever you interact with your computer or your phone, your mind is inside, your body moves automatically; you use muscle memory, unconscious movement,” Tothong says. “But your body and mind should be connected to the digital. This device—and the movements you make when you use it—helps to create that connection.”

Birce Ozkan, MFA Design and Technology ‘15, wants us to be less reliant on our digital devices, which “create limitations of awareness to our physical surroundings.” To that end, Ozkan designed Augmented Jacket, a garment featuring the technology of a navigational instrument. The garment incorporates black feathers which are connected to motors that are controlled by an integrated electronic compass. When the wearer faces a certain direction, the plumage also moves in that direction, telling the user where he or she needs to go. No need to keep checking your iPhone.

“Think of all the times you documented something on social media and forgot to actually experience what was going on,” adds Ozkan, who curated the Design and Technology projects in the exhibition.

Ozkan, who now teaches a class on interactive garments at Parsons, was invited by SXSW to show her work after winning the award for Best Wearable Tech Design at the International Symposium on Wearable Computers in Japan last year. Her work has been featured in Fast Company, Dezeen, and Design Boom.

Kendall Warson, Fashion Design ‘16, designed her garment for a different sort of need: the independence of people with visual impairments. Her jacket, Sensory (which is part of a larger collection), is designed with several adaptations to heighten the tactile and auditory awareness of wearers, allowing them to be more in touch with their surroundings. It includes a braille system that allows the wearer to identify the garment; cuffs and flaps that adjust up and down, and an embedded cane, that are used to detect objects in the path of a wearer; and large pockets that allow easy access.

“Fashion is a form of self-expression,” Warson says. “To not understand color and patterns, people with visual impairments lose so much independence. I want them to get that back and to feel a sense of empowerment.”

Follow our social media coverage of The New School + SXSW at #NewSchoolSXSW

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