Drexel University lab merges fashion and technology into wearable future

Ryan Young works on HUBO the robot who is getting some new threads thanks to the help of Drexel fashion students.
Ryan Young stretches specifically manufactured threads onto HUBO the robot’s physique. With the help of the machinery inside the Shima Seiki Haute Technology Lab, HUGO ditched rigid plastic shells for form-fitting synthetic skin. The new duds are a result of a collaboration between the fashion and engineering students who inhabit the the ExCite Center. Credit: Charles Mostoller/METRO

The smart watch is old hat. A Drexel professor wants to talk t-shirts.

Inside Drexel’s ExCite Center, a research lab where engineering, fashion, tech and art students and professors collaborate, video game design professor Frank Lee walked past the glass-enclosed Shima Seiki Haute Technology lab and went, “Whoa!”

The lab, inhabited by program director Genevieve Dion and members of the school’s fashion design department, includes a printer that knits electronics into clothing.

Lee thought: “What kind of game can I make with it?”

One idea: knit sensors into a t-shirt so the wearer could build up power moving within a specific space.

“Think of it like Street Fighter meets tag,” Lee said last week. “As you build up power, and you’re charged and you can go attack someone, the shirt gets disrupted and changes color.”

This is life inside the Expressive and Creative Interaction Technologies Center, the 11,000-square-foot lab with big windows on the first floor of a nondescript building at 34th and Market streets. It’s a lab that merges creativity and technology into a kind of engineering arts.

It’s a place where students develop ideas alongside Drexel professors. The ideas lead to prototypes that can be patented.

And the main attraction these days: wearable technology.

The fashionistas and techies collaborate on t-shirts for gaming, new smart phone and tablet apps, clothes specifically tailored for a robots’ movements, and a fusion of modern-day technologies with a classic piano.

Youngmoo Kim, center director, engineering professor and associate dean of media technologies, is the crossing guard at the intersection of these ideas.

During a recent tour of the space, he spoke about the possibility for bellybands woven into a pregnant women’s fabric to monitor the fetus. He’s working with students and professors to consider wearables for exercise, physical therapy and health care monitoring. “What about a jacket with a cell phone booster so you always have good cell phone service?” he rhetorically asked.

It’s all in a day’s work.

“For us, the future for us of wearables is not smart watches,” he said. “It’s not devices, and it’s certainly not Google Glass, but a seamless integration into your actual clothing.”

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