The experimental designer takes wearables into the future by fusing fashion with robotics and computer technologies, drawing inspiration from pioneering inventors while encouraging young girls to chase their curiosities through art and sciences.
Anouk Wipprecht is pushing the edge of what’s possible in the world of wearable technology, and nothing is out of the question.
Putting on one of her computer-infused smart dresses, which are mostly 3D printed, is like stepping into a time and space warp where science and art collide. The past, present and future of fashion intertwine with human-machine interaction — something that can only be explained by a deeper look into Wipprecht’s soul and the pioneering scientists who influence her.
Her education in design and engineer, fascination with fashion, human behavior sciences, gaming and social interactions all come together in her work.
“Fashion for me is about expression and communication,” she told iQ.
“When I was younger, I noticed how people expressed their moods by the things that they wore. I want to bring this notion of ‘expression’ into the digital world.”
Her dresses communicate with the wearer and the world around them.
“With my Smoke Dress, as soon as you approach the wearer, the system encloses her in in a thick layer of fog as if she’s vanishing before your eyes,” Wipprecht said. “It’s a very poetic sensation for the wearer, just as it is for the person approaching.”
Her 2015 Spider Dress, created in collaboration with Intel, is crowned at the collar with robotic spider legs that react when someone is invading the wearer’s personal space. The legs are driven by Intel Edison compute and communication technologies plus sensors that autonomously adapt to assist to the owner’s emotions and desires.
Whenever someone steps close to the wearer, the mechanic limbs on the Spider Dress’ shoulders move into attack mode.
“Fashion can be thought provoking, something that pushes people to think and share their feelings, and the technology allows me to test social norms,” said Wipprecht. “All my designs challenge the ways we interact with one another.”
The Smoke and Spider dresses are only a few in Wipprecht’s portfolio.
The Dutch designer, who was profiled in a 2013 Red Bull TVs documentary “Hardware Couture,” is also known for the brainwave-monitoring Synapse dress, Intimacy 2.0, 3D-printed outfits for Cirque du Soleil and the dress Fergie wore during the Black Eyed Peas live performance at Super Bowl 2011.
Before taking an assignment at Microsoft in May, she worked as a “Designer in Residence” at Intel for nine months. Her job involved exploring innovative ways to use Intel Edison technology, designed for adding computer and communications capabilities to almost anything that can be connected to the Internet.
She calls the Spider Dress her most complicated human-system design so far because it required her to plumb the depths of her education and curiosities. Being curious is something she celebrates every day.
“There’s nothing like being a young girl with your eyes wide open, mind filled with questions and the desire to find answers,” she said.
Educating girls about the fun that can come from engineering endeavors is important to her.
“As a woman in a still male-driven world of technology, I would like to see more female role-models who can inspire young girls to explore electronics in fashion, robotics, programming or any other field.”
She said that Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), the woman many consider the world’s first computer programmer, is a big inspiration for her and anyone curious about engineering.
Wipprecht points out that Lovelace, the daughter of English Poet Lord Byron, was driven by her mother who believed that a strong education would eradicate any traits of insanity that ran in the family. That education included mathematics and science from top scholars, which allowed her to write an algorithm for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers with Charles Babbage’s analytical engine in 1842.
“Ada was keen never to take ‘no’ for an answer, even in her time when woman were kept from any ‘male-mind’ kind of work,” said Wipprecht.
“She took a path that no woman had taken before by questioning two theories and entities then combining them. This led to groundbreaking formulas that are used in many of the machines we work with today.”
For her own work, Wipprecht said she always questions the current state of things.
“Don’t take things for what they are, but what they might be or what they can be if you playfully twist them around,” she said.
Imagine how differently our clothes would be today if many years ago sensors and tiny computers were built into the things we wear.
“Not taking ‘no’ for an answer raises questions and sparks discussions, and this drives innovation.”
Wipprecht said she also relates to Grace Hopper (1906-1992). Hopper is known for many things, including the invention of the compiler, creating a program that translates English language instructions into the language of the target computer and for coining the term “debugging,” which is widely used by computer scientists and engineers to describe the pursuit of fixing problems in software and hardware.
“Grace Hopper was curious and daring,” said Wipprecht. “She knew that sometimes you have to break the rules to find the answer. Many of my design ideas and the challenges I’ve overcome in design phases come from chasing my curiosity into new places and trying things that go against the grain.”
She said her understanding of physical and human sciences comes in handy whenever she’s exploring how a garment should fit, feel and react to the emotions of the person wearing it.
Wipprecht also named the women of ENIAC, which included Kathleen McNulty, Mauchly Antonelli, Jean Jennings Bartik, Frances Synder Holber, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Frances Bilas Spence and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum, as strong-minded influencers from the past.
In 1946, these women teamed up to program the ENIAC, the first all-electric programmable computer. It was built using 18,000 vacuum tubes and forty black 8-foot panels.
The secret project was intended for measuring missile trajectories during World War II, but by the war ended before the ENIAC was completed.
To program ENIAC, Wipprecht said these women had to maneuver 3,000 switches built inside 80 tons of hardware by hand.
“Programming languages and tools didn’t exist, so they had to rely on logical diagrams,” she said. “They had math skills that allowed them to convert math analysis into a process that the electronic circuitry could understand and calculate.”
That’s the kind of hands-on, tinkering is a big part of Wipprecht’s world. Along the way, her use of technology has evolved rapidly.
“Today I’m working with technologies that weren’t around two years ago,” she said. “Things like Intel Edison bring more integration and power computing abilities to smaller components, which is essential for wearables.”
To inspire young people, Wipprecht created a DYI blueprint for what she calls “badass mechatronic wings,” using LEGO MindStorms EV3 and assorted Technic elements.
Pioneering women of the past and present show extraordinary courage, she said. Their efforts create new possibilities.
“Instead of getting stuck with ‘I cannot do this’ or ‘things are too difficult,’ just explore and question everything. Don’t give up.”
At a recent Salesforce gathering, she told the crowd to act on their impulses and have a strong belief in what the world should look like. Then, go make it happen.
Photos by Anouk Wipprecht and Red Bull TV.
Grace Murray Hopper photo by Unknown (Smithsonian Institution).