Design And Performance Lab




Johannes Birringer

(c) 2006

"Wearables," Performance Research 11:3, 140-41



Wearable computers are devices worn on the body. After the introduction of the Personal Computer, which brought computing into the home during the 1980s, and the subsequent global expansion of the World Wide Web, which built on the communications infrastructure of the Internet and magnified the availability and delivery of information, a new stage of technologies at the beginning of the 21st Century links the personal and the pervasive through mobile, wearable computing. The convergence between the miniaturisation of microchips (nanotechnology) and the growth of wireless, ubiquitous computing emphasizes mobility: computing devices are small enough to be carried around or integrated into clothing or the human body at all times. Furthermore, hand-held devices (cell phones, PDAs, head-mounted displays, etc) and instruments (sensor data acquisition) worn directly on the body have the ability to interact with devices embedded in the environment.

Wearables are distinctive from other mobile devices by enabling hands-free interaction, minimising the use of a keyboard or manual input, for example by devices worn on the body such as a headset allowing voice interaction and a head mounted display which replaces a computer screen, or shifting data control of sensor interfaces directly to bodily motion,muscle activity or breath. Wearable devices are an attractive research area with potential applications in many fields, for example health monitoring systems, medical aid for people with disabilities, behavioral modeling, perception and psychology, information technologies, military and public safety management, media development, polymer science, and nanotechnology.

One of the most fertile interdisciplinary developments can be seen in the meeting of soft technology and wearables for performance, connecting research in "smart" fabrics, microelectronics and manufacturing techniques to general concerns of functional design and aesthetics in fashion, textiles, sportswear, interaction design, media and live arts. Research initiatives such as the Smart Clothes and Wearable Technology Research Group (Newport, Wales) or the Interactive Textiles and Wearable Computer Group at Hexagram (Montrˇal, Canada) focus on smart clothing that addresses end-user needs from technical, aesthetic and cultural viewpoints, pursuing a vision of sensing/communication tools and clothing that can express peopleÕs personalities, needs and desires, or augment social dynamics through the use of wearables as "theatre" and as emotional "tools."

The historical precursors to wearables in the performing arts are musical instruments and electronic devices used by musicians and, in some cases, dancers, actors or singers to connect gesture, movement or voice to media output. Since the 1950s and 1960s, musical interface design added new dimensions of musical expression through, at first, MIDI technology (transmitting data to receivers and synthesizer mappers through a standardized interface) and, more recently, digital signal processing and real-time gestural control, deploying sensor and actuator technologies and haptic or force feedback devices for musical control. Important research on digital musical instrument design, mapping algorithms, and intelligent controllers was conducted at IRCAM, STEIM, and other labs. Engineers at Bell Laboratories and MIT Media Lab designed innovative wearable tools, e.g. Joe Paradiso's Instrumented Dance Shoes (1997); Steve Mann's Wireless Wearable Webcams (1996) or his early wearable computing apparatus (1981). Other artists experimented with wearables as extensions/prosthetic devices for the body (Stelarc, Antunez Roca) or as implants (Eduardo Kac). Trisha Brown's Homemade (1966) stands out as an early example of a dancer "wearing" a film: Brown literally performed with a film projector mounted on her back. The projection of the film touched the wall, floor, ceiling and audience in synchronization with the "live" dance.

Brazilian artist Helio Oiticica, producing his parangoles and penetrables (1960s) to be worn/inhabited by dancers to effect surprasensory states of absorption, anticipated today's interactive art and smart textile design emphasizing biofeedback and haptic experience through tactile, auditory, sensorial and kinetic attention. The New York City based Troika Ranch pioneered the use of wearables with their custom-built MidiDancer, a set of accelerometers worn on arms and legs. Thecla Schiphorst, Susan Kozel, Hellen Sky, Ruth Gibson, Tomie Hahn, Carol Brown, Katsura Isobe, Marlon Barrios Solano, Ermira Goro and other dancers/choreographers have worn sensors to explore soft processes of improvisation with fluid, intangible exchanges, composing sound and imagescapes through their motion. Recent dance technology experiments point to an increasing integration of wearable sensor technology and intelligent fabrics with an aesthetics of multi-sensorial, transformative reverie. Immersive performance, in which movement with body sensors creates a constant flow and feedback loop of sensory and perceptual data which can "edit" (control) image/sound projections of Virtual Environments and permutations of the time-images, heightens proprioceptive awareness of the physical body moving in space, and stimulates a process of re-experiencing what constitutes self and identity. The acceleration and deceleration of the image, of the human perception of image and sensorimotor logic, has made performance with wearables (e.g. sensors measuring neurophysiological functions) not only significant for artistic experiments with the physiological, the machinic, and the virtual. Increasingly, wearables in performance also suggest intimate and varied interfaces for the body which allow microsensory surveying of consciousness and the imaging activity of the human organism.


Further References




Interagir avec les Technologies Numˇriques, ed. Florence Corin, Nouvelles de Danse 52 (2004).

Interfaces, ed. Emanuele Quinz) Anomalie digital_arts no. 3 (2004)

McQuaid, Matilda, Extreme Textiles: Designing for High Performance. London: Thames & Hudson, 2005

Massumi, Brian, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2002.

Mitchell. Robert and Phillip Thurtle, Data made Flesh: Embodying Information. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Preece, Jennifer, Yvonne Rogers, Helen Sharp, Interaction Design: Beyond Human-Computer Interaction. Hoboken,NJ.: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. , 2002.

Osthoff, Simone, ŅLygia Clark and Hˇlio Oiticica: A Legacy of Interactivity and Participation for a Telematic Future,Ó Leonardo 30:4 (1997).

Stelarc, ŅThe Involuntary, the Alien, and the Automated: Choreographic Bodies, Robots & Phantoms,ÓDigital Performance, Anomalie Digital_arts, no.2 (2002).

Xiaoming Tao, Wearable Electronics and Photonics. Cambridge: Woodhead Publishers, 2005


Johannes Birringer is a choreographer and artistic director of AlienNation Co., a multimedia ensemble based in Houston ( He has created numerous dance-theatre works, digital media installations and site-specific performances in collaboration with artists in Europe, North America, Latin America, and China. He is the author of several books, including Media and Performance: along the border (1998), Performance on the Edge: transformations of culture (2000), and Dance Technologies: Digital Performance in the 21st Century (forthcoming). After creating the dance and technology program at The Ohio State University, he now directs the Interaktionslabor Göttelborn in Germany ( and the Telematics DAP Lab at Brunel University.