Interview with Mark Brill
Internet of Clothes will make people think about their relationship with clothing
A technological breakthrough could see people getting messages about the clothes that lie in their wardrobes unused. These discarded clothes will now be able to tweet and text the owners 'asking' to be worn. Garments will be tagged using contactless technology, and if the alerts are ignored, the garments will get in touch with a clothing charity and ask to be recycled. Subir Ghosh reports.
Researchers at Birmingham City University (BCU) in the United Kingdom (UK) are working on a connected wardrobe that addresses the problem of unworn clothes by reminding you to wear them-or just to give them away to charity. The idea is to create an 'Internet of Clothes' wherein garments will be tagged using washable contactless technology, known as radio-frequency identification (RFID). The project has been made possible by Maker Monday, an open innovation project from BCU that brings artists and technologists together to create new concepts.
According to BCU, "Every day clothing will tweet and message users asking to be worn depending on the weather and frequency of wear. If these notifications are ignored, the garments will get in touch with a clothing charity and ask to be recycled, with an organisation automatically sending out a mailing envelope for return."
Mark Brill, senior lecturer in Future Media at BCU, is behind the project. Brill elaborated on the project idea and how he plans to take the idea forward.
TT: There is little doubt that the idea is fantastic. But how much of this do you think is practicable? Of course, very few ideas at the onset ever seem feasible. Yet, the sheer scale of this idea is daunting. Do you agree?
I agree that there is much to do to create scale, but I don't find it daunting. We are introducing the principle of connecting your wardrobe in order to think differently about clothing. However, we are doing it in a low-cost and open source way-we want to get the tools out there, but where people will take it, is entirely up to them.
TT: For something like this to work, every single rung in the supply chain needs to do its bit. The idea needs to be accepted and also implemented by one and all. So, how much so far have you been able to promote/propagate the idea?
We have had very strong response to the concept; so I feel that propagation is not a major challenge. I don't feel that we need everyone on board to make a change. For example, I am most interested in seeing greater use of ethical clothing, and so I'm less bothered if the fast fashion businesses don't want to get involved. We don't need the support through the whole supply chain either. Principally we need RFID tags in clothes-that is happening in the garment industry already and users can simply add their own laundry RFID tags as themselves.
TT: The idea of reuse-recycle-reduce goes very much against the fast fashion concept. Do you think that the textiles-apparel industry which makes so much money out of fast fashion will ever change its tack and adapt to an Internet of Clothes campaign?
I agree that it's unlikely the fast fashion sector will just change what they do simply because we have a connected wardrobe. However, what I hope the Internet of Clothes will do is make people think about their relationship with clothing. I believe that it has the potential to disrupt in the same way that Napster did with music, AirBnB is doing with accommodation and of course, the many cab apps. Through that I believe that fast fashion will simply become redundant.
TT: There's bit of a privacy issue too here. If a garment tweets or messages the user, doesn't this become a privacy issue?
To be clear, this is about connecting garments, not people! Individuals are an anonymous data point in this process and not identified in any way-the personality is in the clothes. Within the system there is complete user control about what, where and when they receive messages. For example, they could have an anonymous Twitter account and just see alerts on their phone via messages. We want our users to be aware of their own privacy needs and manage them accordingly.
TT: The idea has been on your website for some three weeks now. What is the kind of feedback that you have received so far? Could you share any of those?
The concept has been in development for over a year. During that time, we have gathered a lot of feedback which is almost all positive. If there are any negatives, it's that some people prefer not to be 'nagged' by their clothes. However, as there is a high degree of control in terms of messages, etc, I feel the system addresses that point. What is interesting is that people suggest many different ideas as to how the wardrobe could be used-from style matching to clothing stories. Our aim is to open source the concept and see the kind of contributions that others come up with.
TT: How's the work on the prototype coming along? What about funding for the project? Could you also tell us a bit about the team that has been working on this project? Especially in terms of responsibilities.
We are continuing to build a strong team that includes designers, artists, programmers and manufacturers. For building the 'exhibit' wardrobe, we are working with a company in the Midlands, HF Contracts. This might lead to a production wardrobe that has the core RFID technology built in. On the programming side, we are working closely with BCU's IoT team in the computing school-we would like to develop a more sophisticated algorithm. The more contextual it is, and the less friction for the user the better the chance of success.
TT: On an overview note: The idea of reuse-recycle-reduce has been very slowly gaining currency since the Rio Summit of 1992. But it's only now that one sees a kind of urgency in the innovations and ideas that are being floated. Why now? And, by and large, do you think the textiles-apparel industry has been a tad slow in going the sustainable way?
Personally I find the Three Rs a little bit outdated. Take clothing, for example, there are reasons why we consume more clothes than we need. In part that's down to 'fast fashion' making clothes cheaper, but it is also fuelled by recent social conventions that promote high consumption. How many clothes should you own? This is why the connected wardrobe aims to go beyond the Three Rs and question our whole relationship with fashion. I agree that the industry has been very slow. For example, I am aware of dyes that would vastly reduce the amount of water required to produce denim, but there's little pressure on the industry to change. Perhaps if the wardrobe gains widespread adoption, then it will add pressure to create a sustainably and fair clothing industry.