So you think you can fashion your future with wearables?

You've come to the right person. Meet Sophy Wong.
Deena Theresa
Sophy's spacesuit and VR set.Sophy Wong

Admit it. You've been dreaming about the vibranium-weave suit used by Black Panther.

That fictional material absorbs kinetic energy, is bullet-proof, and makes the user near-indestructible. You've also been eyeing Shuri's gauntlets and the watch that Tony Stark sports, which transforms into an electromechanical glove capable of firing powerful repulsor rays. The Marvel Universe has treated us to some of the coolest wearable technology and spoilt us for choice. These functional high-tech wearables would not just equip the user with superpowers but are also incredibly fashionable. Here's what IE thinks - Such wearables will soon trespass to reality. And you can make them yourself.

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Sophy Wong started small; she sewed a little light circuit into a shirt she had sewn from scratch. Wong used a LilyPad Arduino and some LEDs. She didn't know what to do with the battery so she left it dangling. The straightforward project also involved incorporated code, which she learned, eager to see her simple marvel come to life. And when that shirt lit up for the first time, she was blown away.

"I couldn't believe I'd done that. I was like wow, now I know how to put lights on things. What else can I put lights on, how can I do this differently...my design brain kicked in right away," Wong, a multi-disciplinary designer specializing in wearable technology and digital fabrication for creative expression, tells IE. That was just the beginning. Wong's 'design brain', reckless but curious, immediately set to work. "I used that same circuit in multiple ways, in other pieces of clothing I'd made," she continues.

So you think you can fashion your future with wearables?
Sophy's LED vest and Temperature Sensitive skirt.

That's right. Wong has made skirts that light up in response to the ambient temperature of the room. Her LED Manicures involve using light to adorn the body as makeup does. The monochrome and multicolor LED manicures are designed for visual performances. And then there's the spacesuit, one that she has wanted to create ever since Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Her helmet comprised internal lighting, voice-reactive external lights, and her suit incorporates a cooling fan system that cycles cool air through the helmet. 

With the rise of the Internet of Things, wearable technology, or "wearables", which include hands-free electronic devices that can be accessories, embedded in clothing, tattooed on the skin, and even implanted in the body, have soared in popularity. The devices could have practical uses or be used as a form of expression. 

Here, Wong incorporates leatherworking, sculpting, mold making and casting, Arduino and other electronics, and 3D printing into her work. She has even had a jewelry line 'Asteroid Blues' wherein she engaged in small-scale metal soldering and metalsmithing. She has worked as a Safety Officer at Mythbusters Jr, the Seattle Opera, and her spacesuit was featured in a music video.

Wong still keeps some of her first projects around. "It's been eight years and I like to remind myself that I started with something really simple. My technology projects continue to remain very simple, but expressive," she says.

IE caught up with Wong amid the most challenging project she has undertaken. Wong also spills the nitty-gritty details on starting with wearable tech fashion and how anyone creative can hop on the bandwagon. 

Interesting Engineering: Tell us about this current project. 

Sophy Wong: I'm making a new spacesuit in my studio now. And this one is not for me - It's a bigger suit for someone who is over six feet tall. It incorporates almost everything that I've learned until now. It will comprise electronics, laser-cut foam, a fan, 3D printing, CNC [Computer Numerical Control machine tooling], which I'm learning right now. It will also have CNC milled metal buckles on it that are custom-made, basically, everything that I didn't get to do on the other spacesuit. The design is complicated as I'm trying to make all these pieces together and incorporate all these processes. 

IE: Interesting! Is this what you've always wanted to do? 

My background is in graphic design and I worked as a graphic designer professionally for several years - I thought that was going to be my career. While I was at my last graphic design job, which was for Gap Inc, I realized that I wasn't feeling creatively fulfilled. I'm a creative, tinkering kind of person. And I've always been interested in technology, but I didn't know that I was going to ever work with technology. I knew that I was more interested in fashion and wearable art. Around that time, I discovered Diana Eng who was a contestant on Project Runway. She was doing wearable technology in fashion garments and that was the first time I'd ever seen someone putting technology into clothes, working with soft circuits, and sewing them. And it just kind of changed my idea of who could do that, you know, suddenly, I saw someone who looked like me doing that. And so maybe I could give it a try. So I did. I'm self-taught - I bought a lot of books, read so many online tutorials, and watched a lot of YouTube videos. And then eventually I made so many projects by myself that I started writing educational content. 

So you think you can fashion your future with wearables?
LED Manicures.

IE: What are your design influences?

I'm very inspired by pop culture, science fiction, and fantasy stories. As a medium, costume, and film are so expressive and powerful. I worked at the costume shop for Seattle opera. And I think a lot of my influences and ideas come from costume, used as a visual storytelling device in performance and film. I am very interested in the ways we express our identities through things that we put on our bodies.

I think a lot of my influences and ideas come from costume, used as a visual storytelling device in performance and film.

IE: Do you have a certain design process? How do you decide the element that should go with a specific piece of clothing? 

I have sort of two different approaches. And it kind of depends on where I am in my process at the time. Sometimes I just want to learn a technique until I might create a project that allows me to explore that technique. An example would be my 3D printed dress, which is made of 3D printed fabric. The pieces that you print are rigid, but the fabric is malleable. So you end up with a soft flowing outfit. I wouldn't say soft, but it's a flexible piece. This project is more of an experiment. A contrast would be the first spacesuit project. In that one, the concept came first and I worked backward. I wanted to make a fantasy spacesuit, not replicate an existing one. I ended up creating a character in my mind and working out what their story would be, why their spacesuit would look this way, you know, and developing the aesthetic based on that idea. And so I would ask questions like what would they need on their spacesuit? Where are they? Are they floating in zero gravity? Or are they exploring a planet? I thought about what one would need if on a planet, and what kind of damage your suit might encounter if that was the environment. The aesthetic here serves the story, versus a project in which the technique is the focal point and will dictate what the aesthetic would look like. 

IE: Do you think that your wearable tech clothing should be purposeful? Or is it solely based on what you like?

I am interested in wearable technology and wearable pieces that are built with expressive technology. The kind of customer that I would have would be someone who wants to tell a story through my work. I'm working with a director right now. He has a narrative idea and I'm building the spacesuit to fit in that world. I would love to do work for performers, musicians, dancers - that's the kind of customer that I think of and so I want my work to serve their vision. 

So you think you can fashion your future with wearables?
Sophy at work.

IE: What would you tell someone who wanted to build their wearables? How do you get started?

I had a non-traditional path into wearable tech. To get into wearable tech, you have to understand that you're making technology pieces for the human body. You need to learn to build the kind of technology you want to build and then about how to put something on the human body. Those are two different things. I think a lot of people kind of over-focus on the technology part. And they don't think about how difficult it is to make a piece of technology that is going to be rigid with a battery and will need protection from elements like body heat and fluids.

I think a lot of people kind of over-focus on the technology part. And they don't think about how difficult it is to make a piece of technology that is going to be rigid with a battery and will need protection from elements like body heat and fluids.

And the wearable should be comfortable. You need to know to make that practically happen on the human body. That is the most difficult part of wearable technology.

But you can encounter those challenges early on. If you want to get started with wearable technology, all you have to do is assign yourself a project like sewing an LED onto a T-shirt and you will encounter those problems in that basic of a project. It's the same kind of challenge you're going to have to face if you want to make an AR headset. How do you make it washable? Comfortable? Where are you going to put the battery? How are you going to make that circuit work? When most wearable things go on your clothes and accessories they can get deformed in some way to get on and off your body. So then you have to start thinking about the surface you're going to create for this circuit. And like I said, you can already work on those challenges early on if you want to get started because the human body is a constant here. So one doesn't have to go through a huge engineering course to get to work with wearable technology. You can look at some YouTube tutorials. And I have a book that is a really basic way to get started with wearable technology. It will teach you the fundamentals that will last. 

I have been approached by companies working on wearable devices. And some of these companies want people who can think outside the box, and they want to see experience, you know, they want to see that people have faced these challenges that I mentioned. And if you have successfully put something that incorporates technology on the human body and built a body of work that shows you understand those challenges and you're capable of addressing the core issues that you'll encounter when you're building any kind of wearable device, I can't see why that wouldn't be as valuable as having a certificate. 

IE: How has the public's perception of wearable tech changed over the years? And what do you think would be the future of wearables in clothing?

I think people are kind of opening up to the possibilities of what it can do for them. Things like fitness trackers, smartwatches, snap glasses, VR headsets...people are coming around to those. But I think it's also about explaining to people that wearable technology does so much more and the way it integrates into your life is much more intimate. That is something that designers have to be conscious of because, you know, putting something on your body is so personal. So one of the challenges that we have to overcome and be aware and respectful of is when we're building wearable technology, it should always be made with the wearer in mind.  

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