The Athletic-Tech Garment Making the Virtual Real : Introducing Skinterface

We are fully versed in the realm of our physical world and increasingly dipping into the virtual world through virtual reality experiences, but what of the space in between?  What of the transition realm – a corridor, if you like, that lies next to the real world in which we transition through before arriving at a state of VR immersion?  Think about the experience of entering the virtual world and the need for all of our senses to be stimulated in order for the virtual experience to feel real.  Drill down even further to consider the organ through which we physically feel – the skin.  Herein lies the connection and transition area of real to virtual.


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The Matrix corridor – a representation of the space between the real and virtual worlds

Skin is a powerful tool that allows us to communicate on a highly intricate level.  It also communicates who we our biologically and culturally, making it a potent social and physical organ.  What happens when a team of curious minds consider the meaning of skin and how skin can transition us from a physical to virtual experience?  Skinterface is born.

Skinterface is the work of RCA students Andre McQueen (Footwear designer and trend forecaster) , George Wright (Engineer), Ka Hei Suen (Kitchen Product Designer) and Charlotte Furet (Architect) who embarked on their MSc / MA Innovation Engineering Design course out of curiosity and a desire for collaboration outside of their immediate professional realms.  An admiration for each other’s individual project work led them to work together as a team of ‘sensory architects’.  The initial exploration for the Skinterface project was broad and posed months of questions about the sensory experience and perception of touch, but began with a very simple test.  The test was wearing a plastic bag on the hand and immersing it in water and noting the sensory experience.  Although the water doesn’t touch the skin it is still felt – the sensation of water on the hand is experienced.  This underpins the working nature of the very human and very wearable piece of tech that is Skinterface.

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Mood board images and the initial plastic bag test

The first question posed at the beginning of project related not to creating a defined product, but how to create something that was very human, integrated with technology.  Touch is a powerful human tool and to relay this using technology seems a powerful new dimension in communication in a digital age.  Skinterface is a one way communication tool – the sensory experience is delivered according to the location of the skinterface garment within a 3D mapped space by tracking its coloured surface details and delivering the sensory experience accordingly.  An extension of this is a dual tool using the same tech, but allowing pressure on one part of the tool to effect the sensation delivered by the other. The implications of this are potentially to touch someone in another location, even in another country. 

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Skinterface at Milan Design Week, 2016

The set of garments created by the team deliver sensory pressure by essentially using a speaker in reverse, so that sounds create a varying electromagnetic field, which in turn is calibrated to produce varying sensations on the skin.  These sensations are delivered via a coil and magnets encased in 3D printed caps, created at Imperial College London and adhered to the garments, which require close skin contact to accurately deliver the sensation.

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Imagine the sound of a bird flying past you and the sensory experience induced by the change in air pressure caused by the bird’s movement – that’s what Skinterface delivers.  In a virtual world, the sound of all manner of objects can be programmed and delivered via the coil and magnet-driven modules that apply just the right amount of pressure to mimic that same sensory experience as though it had happened in the real world. This skin beyond skin is poetically demonstrated in the video below, from beginning to end.

When asked about the aesthetic component of the design, Andre cited the current athletic lifestyle (or athleisure) sportswear evolution and brainstorming about what clothing will look like 40 years from now.  Andre is a Cordwainers graduate who launched a streetwear fashion label then moved on to fashion forecasting, working extensively with global brands to evolve their trend-driven products.  His curiosity for exploring the technical side of fashion and design led him to the Innovation Engineering Design Masters at the RCA, but he still has a firm grip on where the fashion market is headed.

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A selection of Andre McQueen‘s design work

When I ask the team about their view of this exciting innovation could be used they mention the sex industry, gaming, entertainment and fashion.  The sex industry is an obvious one, as is gaming and entertainment, but fashion?  Andre sees an opportunity to translate the sensation of wearing a multitude of different fabrics into a sensory ‘digital library’ that can be felt by wearing Skinterface.  Wonder what your cotton trench coat would feel like in felted wool?  Skinterface can give you that sensation.  There is as much scope here for customer-led retail experiences as for fashion designers considering the weight and drape of various fabrics when designing garments.    

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A library of sounds could be created to induce all manner of sensory experiences through the Skinterface suit.  The team talks about a dream open source library of thousands of compositions, and even whole scores for feature films that could be felt while they are watched.  Theoretically, the score for each character could be written according to what they experience in the film and as a Skinterface-wearing viewer you could experience it too.  The thought of experiencing a film dozens times from a different character’s point of view is mind-blowing. 

I leave the team with just five weeks remaining before they complete their studies and exhibit the work arising from two intense years of exploration, research and experimentation.  On my way out of the Darwin Building at the RCA, Andre and I muse about a common paradox in fashion design – final design decisions are often made at the beginning of the design process, leaving little room for curiosity, exploration and design evolution.  Educational institutions including the RCA are a unique breeding ground for such curiosity and I look forward to seeing where this has taken the IED students, both physically and virtually.

The RCA MA/MSc Innovation Engineering Design exhibition is in June at the Royal College of Art

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One thought on “The Athletic-Tech Garment Making the Virtual Real : Introducing Skinterface

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