Adaptive clothing: Where wearable technology, fashion and biomimicry collide


From open-source coding to creating biomimicry-inspired cocktail dresses, Bosnian-born innovation engineer Karlina Cengija hopes to break new ground with wearable technology.

The Intel innovation engineer currently helps fashion designers make adaptive clothing that shifts shape, changes colour or communicates the wearer’s changing emotional or physical state.

It’s not just about futuristic-looking design. Cengija works with the latest technologies and materials to bring new capabilities to clothes. The critical part is making these technologies fit and function naturally.

“I want to help designers step away from mechanical, very jittery movement to more smoothed out, organic movements like something we would see in nature,” Cengija says.

Making the Chromat Adrenaline Dress
Chromat designer Becca McCharen (left) and Intel’s Karli Cengija (right) put the finishing touches to the winged Adrenaline Dress.

In 2015, she helped Chromat fashion designer Becca McCharen to create the winged Adrenaline Dress and the reactive Areo Sports Bra for the 2016 Spring-Summer New York Fashion Week. Equipped with computing technology and sensors, the garments autonomously adjust to the wearer’s heart rate and perspiration levels.

The Adrenaline Dress responds by spreading or contracting its back-mounted wings to express emotion, while the sports bra was designed with a special material that reacts to computer commands to open vents when it senses changes in perspiration, respiration and body temperature.

“We used shape memory alloys with the goal to give it a more organic transition,” Cengija says, citing origami as her inspiration. She is keen to emphasise, however, that these are not yet garments for sale. They are experiments that will help uncover what’s possible for future wearable technology.

Like many designers and engineers, Cengija looks to nature. “We took a lot influence from the animal kingdom,” she says. “We took into account things like plants, trees and things in nature that we interact with.”

For Cengija, building this biomimicry into prototype women’s garments started in 2013 when she teamed up with Dutch designer Anouk Wipprecht to create the mood-sensing Synapse Dress. With its ability to read bio-signals, such as the wearer’s heartbeat, brain activity and distraction levels, Wipprecht described the Synapse as a dress that “sometimes knows you better than you know yourself.”

Before arriving at Intel in 2010, Cengija had never worked with micro-controllers and servos, the computing and motion mechanism used to make moving toys and robots. Since then, she has integrated a head-mounted EEG biosensor with an iRobot and wireless technology to create a mind-controlled robot, which later allowed the Synapse Dress to react to the wearer’s emotional state.

Whenever the wearer was excited, the technology flicked on lights and an embedded camera, which recorded precious moments. The wearer didn’t have to move a finger.

Synapse Dress with Intel Edison
The mind-controlled Synapse Dress, powered by Intel Edison, was designed to react to the wearer’s emotional state.

Cengija’s ideas wouldn’t be possible without easily accessible and programmable electronics. Intel Edison and Intel Curie compute modules, for example, can be networked to body sensors that measure a person’s respiration, perspiration and body temperature. These tiny compute modules process algorithms that make microcontrollers or reactive materials move.

Looking ahead, Cengija wants to evolve her biomimicry work. “I am interested in responsive clothing, but also responsive objects in our houses,” she says. “Things that change based on our internal state or other things in the environment.”

She is also fascinated by bioluminescence — the way living organisms use light to communicate. “Imagine being able to choose what you wear based on where you are going and how that environment will make you feel, or what you want to communicate in that environment,” she says.

For a loud sports event, a person could choose an outfit that illuminates with every fist pump or yell. Cengija also imagines how a cocktail dress might shimmer or change shape to communicate your mood at the party then change back to a simple black dress.

Or a person going to a doctor’s appointment might wear an undershirt that hugs or soothes its wearer, using haptics to remind the person to keep calm. She imagines people wearing responsive clothes, like a blouse or vest that grows longer sleeves when weather cools.

At Intel, Cengija works as part of a diverse team that includes a mathematician, hardware and software engineers, scientists and anthropologists. Their backgrounds are in mechanical engineering, computer science, computational and neural systems, nanotechnology, electrical engineering and astrophysics.

Crossing traditional boundaries, blurring the lines between art and science, is something that she believes is essential to future innovation.

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