Kao’s tiny Kino robots are controlled by a magnetic wheel on the inside of your clothing. They scuttle across the surface of the fabric, performing tasks or acting purely as decoration. They can drag the strings of a hoody closed, move in patterns dictated by the wearer, or act like a smartphone-connected speaker and microphone, moving up closer to the user’s mouth and ear if they receive a phone call. They’re part jewelry, part interactive clothing.
When Kao presented research on similar on-body robots last year, she realized there was a big problem–people saw the robots as “creepy.” In a research paper published in June, Kao focused on why. “I think it is a very new experience to see a piece of technology that has the capability to move and change location on the body–it’s not something people have an existing mental model towards, and therefore there was a gap in terms of relating to it,” Kao tells Co.Design in an email. Plus, it’s just plain weird to have little robots crawling around your body.
Kao realized that if the robots had a function, people probably wouldn’t find them as creepy. She conceptualized a series of applications and then conducted user studies to learn about which of the applications participants could imagine using.
Two of her applications are aesthetic–in one, the robot is covered with the same pattern as the dress and as it moves, it literally shifts the textile’s pattern, adding another visual and physical component to the clothing design. In the other, the robot traces patterns on a dress made of velvet, which allows the marks to be “erased” and retraced. (While the wearer couldn’t control the patterns in this early prototype phase, it’s feasible in the future.) It’s an entirely new way of thinking about how fashion can be interactive.
Kao’s other two applications are much more practical. In one, the robots are arranged in one pattern on clothing for work hours. Then, outside the office, the location-aware bots transform into another pattern–a truly effortless outfit change. The second application reacts to the environment: two robots attached to the drawstrings of a jacket hood can detect an increase in temperature, and pull the hood off when it gets too hot.
Kao had each participant in the study try out these applications and solicited feedback about how they’d want to use the Kino robots. Some users imagined using Kino bots to completely alter their outfits in the middle of the day; others thought Kino bots could be used like a personal assistant to measure body temperature and other metrics or adjust their clothing appropriately based on preference.
It’s unlikely these robots will be hitting the runways or the streets anytime soon. Instead, Kao sees her prototypes as exercises in imagining what the future of clothing might look like. Her vision? One day they’d be tiny enough to integrate more seamlessly into clothing. Technology remains a barrier to making that happen right now, and those hardware hurdles have real implications for wearers–in fact, Kao believes the size was part of the reason why people found them so creepy in the first place.
“As technology becomes further miniaturized, there is potential for the things we wear to become much more dynamic and active,” she says. “However, going beyond traditional modalities of displays and LEDs, we introduce mobility as a new vocabulary for on body design.”