Wear It’s At: Tech and Textiles Meet at MSI Chicago’s Wired to Wear Exhibit
Technology moves along at impressive speeds. Not so long ago, the concept of a portable computer was a far-off notion. Enter the smartphone, which took over as phone, music player, camera, navigator and planner, and replaced the common wristwatch for many. Now, the wristwatch returns, this time integrating with its smartphone friend. Around your wrists? Step counters like the Fitbit that can also track your pulse and wake you up gently in the morning. But progress never stops, and the next generation of tech can be worn on your body, from rings and smart sports bras to prosthetics that help those who’ve been disabled move or enjoy life more. MSI’s Wired to Wear exhibit is a fantastic and fascinating look at all the ways the latest tech is creeping out of our pockets and purses and into the fabric of our everyday lives.
Wired to Wear and its companion experience, Makers United, occupy the space the blockbuster Pixar exhibit once did. And while these exhibits might not have the brand name buzz, they’re every bit as impressive, and tech giants like Google, Microsoft, Intel and NASA, along with Harvard and MIT, have amazing things in store for visitors. Wired to Wear features an ample amount of interaction as well as a casual setup allowing for exploration that will have you finding some of the most interesting things if you explore every nook and cranny.
Leading off the exhibit, you’ll immediately be invited to wear some of the tech. Guests young and old can both experience the SpiderSense Vest, which, as it turns out, is a Chicago innovation. This wearable vest employs haptic feedback technology (common in smartphone and video game technology), allowing you to see without seeing by providing a vibrating response when you approach walls or other solid objects you’d otherwise bump into.
Right after that comes a huge display featuring wearable tech for athletics. While there are familiar objects there, some of the newer items were exciting. This included motion capture leggings that then render your movements in 3D so you can check your form, as well as safety devices for runners like the Run Angel, that with one button press emits a high decibel alarm and notifies your cell phone to call and text a list of contacts, providing them with your GPS location and the time and date of the emergency. There are even smart sports bras that can monitor vital signs and report them back.
Quite a bit of the tech at Wired to Wear centers on safety. One of the more eye-catching examples is the D-Air Racing suit which seeks to mitigate motorcycle crash injury. It’s a smart suit that senses a collision before it happens and inflates a full body airbag. Look around more closely though and you’ll find so many medical marvels. There are wearable vital monitors that work battery free for neonatal care, vests which can detect dangerous heart rhythms and defibrillate the heart, saving lives, or things like the one of a kind prototype SignAloud gloves, which are wearable tech that uses motion capture and computer technology to allow those who communicate with American Sign Language to translate their signs to the spoken word in real time. SignAloud was very much a personal invention, created by Thomas Pryor, at the time a college student, in order to help improve accessibility for a family member, though the invention itself (and others like it) has garnered some criticism for forcing deaf people to accommodate the hearing rather than the other way around.
Wired to Wear also features a large array of prosthetics, some created by the people who need them themselves. These range from functional to fun, like a Nerf gun prosthetic, or a purple unicorn horn shaped glitter cannon, designed by 13 year old Jordan Reeves, who co-founded a non profit called Born Just Right that helps kids with limb differences learn to celebrate the difference and use STEM to find solutions to their problems.
As with the glitter cannon, not everything has strictly useful applications, with fashion playing a huge role in where wearable tech goes next. There are awe-inspiring musical tattoos by Microsoft, an amazing work of art called “Iridescence” by Behnaz Farahi that displays beautiful, changeable plumage that responds to your facial expressions, and even fabrics that you can use to control your music. One of the exhibit’s most eye catching show pieces is “Infinite Flow”, a sort of art installation created by Google and Japanese creative firm WOW that lets you control fans and lights to shape a gauzy floating fabric and watch it float in response. Guests to Wired to Wear can even step into the classroom and innovate on their own, using fabric samples and tech creativity to solve new and interesting problems.
Perhaps the biggest draw to the exhibit initially was Richard Browning’s jet suit, which kicked off the exhibit’s opening the weekend of C2E2 with an impressive flight to dazzle attendees. The version used at the event is not on display, but a predecessor and plenty of information are on view so you’re able to get a glimpse of getting around in the future.
What I think makes a museum exhibit special is when the “show pieces” are surrounded by supporting objects that give great context and entice visitors to learn more, and I think it’s something Wired to Wear does effortlessly. Walk through and simply zip past the items on the walls or in darker corners and you won’t have as clear a picture or viewpoint as you will if you take the time to really explore. Indeed, some of the most impressive and awe-inspiring discoveries we made at Wired to Wear were tucked into glass cases or discoverable in the supporting materials.
Technology truly impresses, and so does Wired to Wear, which maintains MSI’s focus on interactivity and education beautifully, creating experiences to draw you in and treasures to keep you engaged.
Once you’ve visited the future, MSI has even more to offer with its companion exhibit, Makers United. This is a separately ticketed experience located just across from Wired to Wear that touches on the spirit of innovation and creation, and allows guests to create a fully functioning RGB wristband while learning about the amazing advances in makers spaces, including 3D printing. It’s a great opportunity to get kids interested in creating while giving them a pretty neat souvenir to remember the trip by, and simple enough that it can be completed with a little help by even the youngest family members.
Overall, Wired to Wear and Makers United provide a fantastic look at the innovations of the present and the promise of the future, showing us what wearable tech is doing and what it can do for us in the future. It shows how technology can be used to save lives and solve problems, create art and grow communities, and gives us hope that people will stop simply creating problems and get together to learn to solve them.
Wired to Wear will be at MSI through May 2020. Makers United will run through January 5, 2020. Neither is included in basic museum entry and both require additional timed-entry tickets, $12 for adults and seniors, and $9 for children ages 3-11. Get more information or get tickets here.