Wearables in Culture. Made-to-Measure Augmented Experiences

Wearables, devices that we wear as we would a t-shirt or a watch, which monitor everything we do, are already starting to make their way into the cultural world.

Isolator eliminates outside noises for a better concentration of worker, 1925.

Isolator eliminates outside noises for a better concentration of worker, 1925. Source: 50watts.

Experts claim that 2014 will be the year when ‘the Internet of things’ really takes off, particularly when it comes to ‘wearables’: devices that we wear as we would a t-shirt or a watch, which monitor everything we do and constantly send data back and forth from the net and give us feedback. For the time being, their biggest impact has been in the fields of sport and well-being. But their potential is so great that they are already starting to make their way into the cultural world, although stepping lightly for now. Wearables will most likely end up transforming and enhancing visitor experiences and promoting participatory learning. Museums and cultural institutions will also have to learn to work with the huge volumes of data that these types of devices generate.

Are you one of those people who post photos on Instagram every five minutes? Or do you tweet everything you do? Or constantly update your Facebook status? If so, you’d probably end up with quite a few privacy problems if you wore this dress by New York-based Chinese designer Xuedi Chen. The dress monitors the activity of the person wearing it, and gradually exposes their skin as they reveal more and more information to the ‘hyper-connected society’.

According to Chen, X-pose is an artistic project that is critical about the way in which we expose ourselves online. But it is also an example of so-called ‘wearables’, gadgets such as bracelets and watches that we wear and that collect large amounts of personal data – from the number of calories we burn each day to the quality of our sleep – and send this data to the net.

They are intelligent devices with the capacity to learn from our behaviour and predict our needs, and they promise a fascinating future. They are the first step towards the ‘Internet of things’. And although they are currently all the craze in the areas of sport and well-being, they have such incredible potential that they will soon make the leap into other fields, including culture and cultural institutions.

“Wearables are very interesting, not just from the futurist point of view but also in relation to motivations, creativity, and people’s interests. They are still in their infancy, but before long, human beings will adopt these technologies and use them to change the world,” says psychologist and ICT expert Dolors Reig.

From smartphones to glasses

Augmented reality glasses such as those made by Google, Epson and Sony are likely to be the first wearables to slip into museums and cultural centres. After all, they seem to be the easiest way to transfer the power of smartphones from our pockets… to our faces! Imagine visiting an exhibition, looking at an artwork, and having the glasses provide all sorts of extra information about the author and the period when it was painted. Or watching a video showing the making of the exhibition. Or being able to refer to an interactive map of the museum.

“Some projects along these lines have already been developed: from buildings that tell you their story, how they were built, what they contain, or who lived in them as you move through them, to projects like the one on the Berlin Wall that allows you to access videos as you move through the areas where the Wall used to be and see what it was like thirty years ago. And to interact with the images too,” adds the psychologist and new media expert Dolors Reig. For the time being, the augmented reality apps that Reig is referring to can only be used on smartphones, “but we will do all of this through augmented reality glasses as soon as they are adapted,” she predicts.

Perhaps museums will initially provide glasses for their visitors – as they did with tablets – until they become a commodity and we all have our own pair. Then, before visiting an exhibition or perhaps once we arrive at the museum, we will download a small app that will be activated when we enter. We will no longer have to take our phone out of our pocket; we will simply give the glasses voice instructions such as “play video”. “They will be like interactive guides with an endless amount of information, because they will be connected to the Internet and able to access everything in the cloud. Cultural institutions won’t need to store anything anywhere,” adds Reig.

But cultural centres will need to put an effort into enriching content, finding high-quality material on the net and linking it, for example, because it would make no sense for augmented reality apps to give us the same information as audioguides. However, this means that they will have to deal with the stumbling block of copyright. “Creative Commons licenses will play an increasingly important role,” says this expert in new technologies.

Augmented reality glasses will also force cultural centres and museums to grapple with the issue of recording. Wearables won’t just allow museums to transfer data to visitors; these prêt-à-porter devices will also allow visitors to record everything we see without anybody noticing. Everything. And this, of course, clashes with individual privacy rights and also with the intellectual property rights of the works on display. Where does this leave museums?

Enhanced experiences

As well as adding layers of information to our visit, wearables have the potential to enhance our experience as visitors. Projects that have been produced in the past using existing technologies invite us to imagine an infinite number of applications for these new devices.

In 2003, Museo Civico in Siena designed a project that offered guided tours which responded to visitors almost in real time. Made to measure. Visitors were given an audioguide with 3D capabilities. A software programme analysed the person’s actions – whether they spent a long or short while in front of the works, whether they paid attention to details, or whether they were just strolling by – and classified visitors according to this information. Then, once they had been classified, the 3D audio subtly guided visitors to the works that the software had decided would most interest them. How? By making the voice of the audioguide come from the place where the next piece was located, so that visitors instinctively turned their head towards it. Something similar could be done with augmented reality glasses.

Ramon Sangüesa, co-founder and co-director of La Mandarina de Newton, believes that wearables reinforce the idea of participation, in the sense of social interaction. The MIT Medialab designed a device along these lines for dog owners. The owners enter their details into the device, and when they take their dog for a walk the gadget suggests routes through Central Park where they will be able to interact with other people who are also walking their dogs and who they might be interested in meeting.

Something similar was tried in the mid-1990s at the Film Fest Gent, where participants were given devices the form of badges to pin to their jackets, containing their personal profile. When they came across somebody whose profile suggested they might be interesting to talk to, the proto-wearable vibrated or lit up. This same idea could be tried in museums with today’s wearable bracelets, such as Jawbone, Up or Nike Fuelband, for example, in order to promote interaction among visitors.

Cultural centres where things happen?

“Wearables will probably make us rethink cultural institutions as places were things are produced, rather than places where things happen. And these things are also culture,” says Sangüesa, from La Mandarina de Newton. Some interesting projects along these lines already exist, particularly in the field of wearables and fashion, such as The Social Fabric, created by Spanish design lecturer Óscar Tomico at Eindhoven University.

Ainara Martín, alias AmonaTela, a Basque cultural activist and textile hacker, believes that “fashion can be a tool for interpreting what is happening in the cultural realm through concepts such as open code, applied technology and collaborative culture. It is a tool and a language that we all share, and cultural institutions can use it to engage with society.”

AmonaTela at the Deusto Emprende Week 2013.

AmonaTela at the Deusto Emprende Week 2013. Source: Innovandis.

The good thing about these wearable textiles is the fact that they are very simple technologies and they make people lose their fear of technology. As such, they can be appealing to the general public, even though they are currently restricted to the area of experimentation, to ‘tech makers’.

Elena Cochero is one of these . She began working with wearables in 2004, and has a collection of light-sensitive costume jewellery made with a 3D printer, for example, which she hopes will raise awareness of global warming. And she has also designed a jacket that shows how happy the person wearing it feels at each moment.

Cultural centres and institutions can become spaces for co-production and provide services to their communities, as some libraries have done by becoming maker spaces. “The old model is worn out, and many cultural centres are already looking for new approaches, such as ‘maker’ projects, as a way of open learning, independently of exhibitions,” says Sangüesa. Learning would no longer be based on lectures in which visitors are given knowledge, and would become participatory, where visitors learn by making.

“Museums and institutions such as the CCCB will have to organise and programme these practices; to create connections, as cultural managers do. They will have to explore new channels that encourage hybrid forms that are feasible and sustainable, in economic terms too. And they will have to target their experiments at specific areas, creating channels that set up links between society, companies, technological innovators and cultural agents,” says Ainara Martín, who is carrying out research for her PhD on fashion, technology and new cultural concepts.

This would help centres to diversify audiences, to open up to the social market – to people – says this textile hacker.

Cultural big data

And just as the devices we wear while we exercise monitor everything we do and generate more and more data that help us to improve our training sessions, something similar will happen in the cultural realm. The devices that visitors wear will provide valuable information to cultural centres, such as the patterns of visits to a particular exhibition, or the types of people who attend, and the things that they found most interesting.

“Museums will have to learn to work with data. This doesn’t mean using data from a marketing point of view, as in ‘if you liked this, you may be interested in that’, but rather putting all the information at the service of the visit,” Sangüesa says. According to this expert in museums and innovation, the way institutions use data will influence their relationship with the public. “Marketing-based use of data seeks to increase visitor numbers in order to keep sponsors happy. Using data to improve the visitor experience will have an impact on the quality.”

The problem, Sangüesa says, is that very few institutions currently have a data processing culture. And, he continues, “if there is no internal commitment to a data culture, many of the things that the Internet of things and wearables promise will remain unfulfilled.”

Cultural centres will also have to learn to channel all of this data. “They have to know who to transmit it to, because it can be valuable information that shouldn’t just remain in the institution,” says Ainara Martín, adding that “museums will become huge containers of data and they will have to learn to manage this data and to transfer it to society. This will be one of the major challenges.”

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  • Lluís Codina | 19 June 2014

  • Equip CCCB LAB | 20 June 2014

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Wearables in Culture. Made-to-Measure Augmented Experiences