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Captain Electric and Battery Boy


The developed world is becoming increasingly dense with electronic devices. Our power consumption needs are constantly increasing, particularly in the case of mobile and wearable electronic devices, and current trends indicate this will continue to be an issue in the future. Since the development of alternative energy sources has not yet yielded economically viable solutions and has not kept up with the needs of our emergent and expanding markets, we are heading towards an environmental disaster [1]. One of the driving forces for fashion, spanning history and different cultures, has been to seek a continually evolving concept of beauty through the transformation of the body’s natural form. This has been exemplified by practices ranging from subtle adjustments of a body’s proportions, through the use of conical brassieres, bustles, crinoline hoops, and exaggerated shoulder pads, to more extreme practices such as deliberate (and sometimes permanent) physical deformation of the body [2]. “Captain Electric and Battery Boy” is the code name for a collection of garments that directly address issues of power consumption and sustainability by creating body-worn, textile-based “living organisms”. We apply our ongoing results in integrating shape memory alloys into electronic fabrics to create kinetic electronic garments that harness power from the body and use that energy to transform themselves in response to various internal and external stimuli. Responding to the need to address long-term sustainability in new technology development we work on both passively harnessing energy directly from the body and actively allowing for power generation by the user. Depending on levels of discomfort and extenuation, as well as the desire to supersede the limitations of the human body, the garments produce varying amounts of energy to fuel themselves. The garments the use that power to move and change shape on the body, using embedded Nitinol (shape memory alloy) fibers.

[1] Starner T. and Paradiso J.A., “Human-Generated Power for Mobile Electronics,” Low-Power Electronics Design, C. Piguet, ed., CRC Press, 2004, chapter 45, pp. 1-35.

[2] Koda, H., Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2001.


This is the transcript of the talk by Joanna Berzowska at the Luminous Green Symposium in 2007

During the Active Materials workshop at FoAM two years ago, the realisation surfaced of just how problematic these technologies are from the viewpoint of sustainability and from the viewpoint of funding. Our funding comes from the arts and from science, which for a large part means military funding.

I'm not going to go into just how horrible all of the raw materials are, because all of this is well known. What makes it infinitely worse is that we create composite materials. We integrate all of these different materials together and they become impossible to recycle. I'm not trying to be apologetic, I'm very aware that the work that I do is environmentally questionable. What I'm going to do today is try and give you an impression of what can be done in terms of activism in the academic world. Like Marko I raise funds from all kinds of disciplines and with this I always try to challenge the engineering and scientific community. For instance, SiGGraph is a conference about computer graphics and as such, it is all about speed and resolution, so at the last edition I entered a paper about extremely slowly animating surfaces. Bringing in slow technologies.

I'm going to talk today about a couple of things we have done to try to influence the world in different ways. The last part of my talk, will deal more specifically with power and wearable electronics. Which deals with the question of where do you get the energy to power these things, to move, or change color etc.

My lab called the 'Xtra Soft' or XS lab which is a pun on the idea of excess and excessive use of technology. We focus on crafts-based approaches to technologies, where we try to use the most bizarre, underused emerging technologies, from a crafts perspective. I think that is where a lot of our innovations come from. We focus on technical innovations, but also on communication. We research soft electronics, which is integrated into textile, enabling it to move, change color, etc. A lot of our artistic, or communications research goes into - what I call - 'textiles as magical companions'. This is where questions of functionality come in, which are quite interesting in this field. We've been doing quite a bit of work on textiles used as power transfer infrastructures.We weave, embroidering and stitching, to basically create circuit boards in textile substrates. Conductive yarn can be something like cotton with some kind of metallic particles, which is interesting for our applications, but it is another recycling nightmare.

The reason I'm applying these crafts-based techniques in our work is because it allows us to scrutinise the manufacturing of this stuff. We have started a couple of efforts in India and Ethiopia together with the World Bank and several NGO's, looking at how local knowledge and skills, that used to be supported by the textile industries, can now be deployed in the some of these new technologies.

Smart textiles are often presented like the great big hope for the future. The idea is that we will only buy one garment for a season, but then electronic devices are also designed for obsolescence, so the next garment with new features will come out, with a better ring-tone, or whatever. But at least there is the idea of having a little bit more control and a little bit more of variation in a garment, and this could perhaps make us buy less. I'm quite cynical about these things I just want to throw them at you, as ideas.

In our lab, we make garments that change colour, or change shape using textiles. Or even environments that change over time. This also makes great business sense because people that work in such an environment become more productive. (giggles) So our garments move and shift on your body somewhat violent and perverse ways, and they hurt you, or reveal things, record you, or others and then reveal that. We see this as our artistic component of the research - asking these kinds of irreverent questions about technology.

We use textiles as power delivering structures. We looked at several ways of attracting attention to our increasing use of energy and how that might influence the health of our environment and our own personal health. In terms of our wearable power requirements which are constantly increasing, there are three main approaches in the design community. One is to focus one eco-design and sustainability that consume less power. The second is to look at other ways of generating power than using batteries, which is not a field that is developing rapidly at all. Thirdly people have started looking at the human body as a source of power, or parasitic power. This can be active power generation, such as cycling, or passive power generation exploiting the kinds of things we already do naturally with our bodies. Both of them are very inefficient and they don't generate a lot of energy. But they are important to look at as ways for us to monitor our energy use and make it tangible. I think there is a perfect fit between this kind of thinking and the history of fashion. Generating power in this way is uncomfortable. There is this interesting relationship between the history of fashion as something that is also uncomfortable and inflicts pain, both for women and men across history and different cultures. We actually do desire things that are uncomfortable. This might sound strange but its true. There is a whole bunch of sociologic reasons for it, but we do like to suffer a little bit.

We are also looking at garments that use our bodies to power themselves as a kind of parasitic or symbiotic organisms. We are going to start on those in September, so perhaps I can report on them on the next Luminous Green.


Joanna is Assistant Professor of Design and Computation Arts at Concordia University in Montreal. She received her Masters of Science from MIT for her work titled Computational Expressionism. She holds a BA in Pure Mathematics and a BFA in Design Arts. She is the founder of XS Labs (Extra Soft) in Montreal. XS Labs is a design research studio based in Montreal, where we develop electronic textiles, wearable computing, and reactive garments. We are concerned with the exploration of simple interactions that emphasize expressive qualities of electronic circuits and of the body. Of particular interest to XS Labs are the many relationships between our bodies and the architectural spaces that they inhabit. Our clothing is one of the first such structures, often talked about as a “second skin”, which enables an important level of interface between the human flesh and the outside world, physically and metaphorically.


symposium2007/joanna_berzowska.txt · Last modified: 2011/04/02 03:48 by maja