synapseWear: a wearable for the body, the environment, or creating art

When you think of wearables, it’s probably a smart watch or fitness tracker that comes to mind. But a new wearable device, and its accompanying fashion collection, is hoping to change that.

“I’ve been in wearables for about ten years, and there’s something sad about how the proposition that was launched at the beginning, where the thought the whole body would be transformed, became summarized by a watch or a bracelet. And there’s of course good arguments for that, but the whole body is still there,” Valérie Lamontagne, PhD and creator of the Fashiontech festival 3lectromode, told MTLinTECH.

Lamontagne is one of the owners and designers of synapseWear, a wearable device with six sensors to capture your motion and environmental data. But instead of being restricted to your wrist, Lamontagne and partner Alexander Reeder have created an accompanying fashion collection that allows you to place the device in different positions all over your body.

“Alex is from the US but is Tokyo based, and I’m in Montreal. We’ve known each other for a number of of years and we’ve been keeping an eye on what’s been going on with wearables, but most of the stuff is being worn on the wrist. We wanted something that would be a little more playful and more open-sourced.”

The six sensors act as mnemonic recorders of your sentient experiences perceiving: C02/TVOC, temperature, humidity, pressure, light, movement (9DOF) and ambient sound levels. The device can be used as an attractive air quality monitor or a way to enhance your performance art.

“We started with the wearable that’s probably the most alarmist/safety focused, which was the air quality wearable. Because if you look at that field it’s basically scare tactics. Most of it is looking at biofeedback and metrics about the body, and not so much about the environment. And when you look at the environment it’s kind of this danger zone. We wanted to give it a spin that was about the environment and about a positive feedback loop that we could get from the environment, and how that could be creative. So essentially the sensor is an environmental sensor.”

But rather than create a platform that builds on consumer data, synapseWear gives the user back control over their own data.

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“All of the data belongs to the users. We’re happy to store it. We won’t use it. Or we let the users store it.”

The applications for that data, and its artistic potential, are also what set synapseWear apart. The device has two modes: one to automatically upload data as you collect it, and one to use the data directly as part of a performance or artistic creation using the data you are producing.

“The app is quite beautiful, and we did two different designs that we hoped would appeal to two different audiences. Again, those who are more interested in collecting the data and those who are more interested in reading and understanding the data. So we have one visualization that’s very abstract, so more of a mood or a feeling for what those data sets are. We made little components that come together to showcase temperature, humidity, illumination, and these will darken and grow depending on the number of data sets collected in it. We also have a metrics platform where you can see the numbers and the shifts.”

We’re looking to see what people want to do with it. It’s an open-ended proposition and an artistic proposition, not just a consumer product. It’s kind of like Arduino meets wearable tech. It’s open, it’s yours, the github will be open. We’re not looking to make money from one proprietary hardware, we’re just trying to build a platform that people will be interested in using.

Lamontagne and Reed have also created a capsule clothing collection made specifically for the synapseWear device.

The device is designed to attache to the series of t-shirts and pants by way of a special fabric that has been integrated into the seams. This permits you to place the device wherever you like – on your shoulders, the nape of your neck, hips, legs and so on. If you wish to wear the synapseWear device with your own garments it also comes with a clip that lets you wear it with any garment or accessory.

“There’s a few reasons behind it. One is to look at different ways of collecting the data, for example light or motion or sound might be captured differently on different parts of the body. And we also wanted to work with fashion. We didn’t want to make just a device. We wanted people to be able to wear it somewhere else than the wrist. Personally, I don’t wear a wearable because it’s on the wrist, I can’t type, I can’t work. We liked the idea that you could engage your whole body. It’s medical-grade velcro that’s quite solid, and we managed to integrate it into the garments. And again, in the spirit of people being able to experiment.”

The pattern on the device is modeled after a slow motion photograph of raindrops falling into a puddle.

“We really tried to be inspired by the environment and do something that was a little more holistic but not too hippie. We want beautiful things in the world. I don’t think we need more tech just for more tech. We wanted to add something to the landscape that would be aesthetically pleasing and propose new avenues for how wearable tech can be used and worn.”

Lamontagne recently set up a pop-up shop for the device in New York to show people how it works and get the word out. She’s hoping to have another one in Montreal this fall. Many potential applications for the device haven’t even been thought of yet, and they’re open to collaborating with businesses that may have ideas for the future of synapseWear.

“We’re very open to doing different kinds of usability. We also think that there’s a whole safety and wellbeing industry that could be interested. I just want to put it out there that we have enough hardware and software to be able to customize and facilitate that. So we would be interested in working with companies that want to know more about the conditions their workers are in or day to day and the environments that different types of workers encounter, what it takes to keep them happy and sane. We’re super open if someone has an idea for the platform, we’d love to hear about it.”

They’re also very interested in working with different kinds of artists, to unlock the artistic potential for the two modes of data interpretation on the device.

“I’d like to get a few artists to try it out, both for music and for dance. I think those are two really good platforms for using the data for real-time performance.”

synapseWear is currently fundraising through a kickstarter campaign. You can back the project here for the next six days, when the campaign closes.


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