Nov. 17, 2020

PhD student and alum explore innovative wearable technology

Kathryn Blair and Teddy Seyed study its impact on our minds and bodies

If you’ve ever been accused of wearing your emotions on your sleeve, well, turns out you’re just way ahead of the curve. Research and innovation around wearable technology explore how what we wear impacts the way we move through the world — be that with ease, trepidation or heightened awareness of the mind-body connection. Solutions and discoveries from a PhD student and an illustrious alum are practical and fantastical explorations of the “social experience” of clothing.

Kathryn Blair is a doctoral student in the computational media design program, Department of Computer Science in the Faculty of Science. Part of her art practice focuses on wearable tech, an interest rooted in her curiosity around the intersection of humanity, art and technology. Her conceptual creations explore questions such as “when and how do we give bits of our feeling and our physical existence over to technology?”

  • Photo above: For this piece, called Common Experience, Kathryn Blair uses the EEG data of the wearer to control colour and tension on the garment. Photo by Trevor Lalonde

A regular participant in Calgary’s MakeFashion events, Blair’s work looks at how technology connects to our emotions. She recently made a coat embedded with sensors that check the wearer’s heart rate, skin conductivity and temperature. “Tech can influence us in positive ways by monitoring emotions, and encouraging healthy responses such as cognitive therapy,” says Blair, who points to avenues for both health research and commercialization of such wearable technology.

On the other hand, she says, some aspects of “getting computers to do emotional labour for us may not be a great idea.” Her coat provokes an intentionally controversial discussion point: not only does the coat inform the wearer how they’re feeling, but it also chooses a solution that, for instance, reverses a bad mood by playing a song or changing the colour of lights within the fabric.

Such intervention plays with the idea of human autonomy and what kind of control we’re willing to give up. “We like to think of tech as something that happens outside of our bodies,” says Blair. “Experimenting with wearable tech is a way of showing that’s not true.”

Certainly, clothing and thoughtful, wearable technology can play a critical role in how and where our bodies are able to move through the world. Dr. Teddy Seyed, PhD’19, is UCalgary’s first Entrepreneurial PhD graduate. Since October 2019, he has worked full-time at Microsoft Research, leading wearables research and initiatives (were it not for COVID, he’d be at the Microsoft campus in Seattle; for now, Calgary gets to keep him a little longer).

He works with textile and apparel companies to enable wearable tech experiences — particularly those that elevate accessibility — to come more quickly and fruitfully to the point of successful manufacturing.

“Rather than build specific wearable items, my focus on innovation is around integration,” says Seyed. “Right now, there are so many companies doing sensors and wearables and textiles but they are running independently and not taking advantage of the power of the team.”

In other words, he strives to better equip an entire industry that can, in part, dramatically improve life for people hampered by barriers to accessibility. For instance, face masks that work for those with claustrophobia or, say, for people who work with hearing-impaired folks who need to be able to read lips, or for those whose limited mobility doesn’t allow them to reach up to put a mask on in a typical way.

“I’m always asking, ‘What tech can we add to solve problems for people?’” he says. With the right companies working together, he envisions the successful production of wearable tech that can do anything from detect air quality to elevate environmental awareness for the visually impaired (imagine gloves that tell the wearer what object they are touching).

“There are so many interesting ideas that come back to accessibility but,” says Seyed, “we need innovative thinking to pull it all together.”

Innovation Week at UCalgary  

As part of UCalgary’s partnership with Calgary Economic Development, UCalgary is celebrating  Innovation Week YYC, as well as Canadian Innovation Week and Global Entrepreneurship Week. Join UCalgary experts and researchers Nov. 16-20 for a week of conversation, inspiration and ideas. Learn how you can get involved.