The Future of Wearable Tech: Q & A with Brad Holschuh

Brad Holschuh officially begins his appointment as Assistant Professor and Co-Director of the Wearable Technology Lab in January, but he’s already learning the ropes, working with graduate students, and jumping into projects—including a recreation of Marty McFly’s 2015 self-tailoring jacket for Back to the Future Day. He holds a PhD in Aerospace Biomedical Engineering from MIT, where he worked on a team that developed skin-tight spacesuits to augment astronauts in zero gravity.

The Marty McFly jacket is fantastic. I can’t believe we actually have the technology to make it work! How do you think wearable technology will continue to change our wardrobes?

Wearable tech is no longer relegated to hackers in basements taping circuits to their bodies and calling it a wearable system. We can make wearables that look good, that are highly functional, and that can change your relationship with what you are wearing.

Lucy Dunne (Apparel Design) and I believe that the way people view clothing is extremely out of date. You have a huge wardrobe with tons of pieces in it, but each garment serves only one or two functions. So every morning, you have to stand in front of your wardrobe and perform an optimization of the countless combinations that exist. But what if you had a garment that could change its shape, or color, or porosity, or heat settings? Suddenly the decision changes from “what am I going to wear?” into “how do I want my garment to adapt today”? You wouldn’t have to go buy 20 to 30 new pieces of clothing each year, you just need to have a garment that can continually add new functions.

We are working towards that reality, and it represents a revolution both in terms of what a garment looks like and is constructed from, but also how it’s used, how people think about apparel, and what the apparel consumption model looks like.

20151020, Lucy Dunne, Back to the FutureIn addition to your degrees in aerospace engineering, you have a masters of science in technology and policy. How did this fit into your design work?

The people who make decisions about how technologies are used and regulated are often not technologists. Likewise, technologists often isolate themselves from the management and policy questions surrounding the technology they develop. It’s a failure on both sides: you can’t always expect policymakers to be technically trained, but designers and engineers shouldn’t pretend that their work is independent of the world of policy. In the Wearable Technology Lab, our goal is to make products that are used by people. That is inextricably linked to the politics and policy of technology use. I don’t have aspirations of being a policy maker, but I want to understand how what I’m making will be managed; so I can communicate with policymakers and help inform their decisions.

Your past research focused on spacesuits. Could you share an example of how wearable technologies also enhance life on Earth?

My original passion was aerospace, specifically bioastronautics, which examines how to support and augment people when they go to space. In zero gravity, the body as a system has to readapt and find new ways of functioning. It’s just such a fascinating problem: how can we keep astronauts healthy and ensure they can do the work they need to do when they’re up there; and how can we design and engineer systems to help?

There are also several applications here on earth for the technologies that we develop for space. The skin-tight spacesuits that we developed are first and foremost compression garments— really, really tight-fitting compression garments, the likes of which don’t exist on earth. They required a sophisticated tech solution, but at the end of the day, what we made is a controllable compression garment. And it’s not hard to appreciate why that would be valuable on earth.

Compression garments today are not very good. They come in two forms: either a stocking that’s too small for you, and so is extremely difficult to put on; or an inflatable sleeve, which is bulky and requires an air source. Neither of these options promote active lifestyles, and they are particularly challenging to use for unhealthy or aging populations (the most common users of medical compression systems). But the technology we made for our spacesuit could be used in a compression garment vastly superior to anything that exists on the market: one that can be as tight or loose as the user needs, and that can be controlled dynamically.


Illustration by Mary Ellen Berglund (Apparel Design)

What aspect of working in the Wearable Technology Lab are you most excited about?

I’m excited that I can now study new applications for wearable technology. Being in a College of Design where aerospace applications are encouraged but not exclusively encouraged, I finally feel like I am able to explore other things we can do with wearable tech, in addition to supporting humans in space.

I came from an aerospace department where we did wearable tech by working on space suits. But we were always an odd duck amongst our peers in the department, because the skills that you need to make a really good wearable system are not the skills you typically find in classical aerospace engineering. I constantly found myself having to reach out to physiologists and textile engineers and other folks you wouldn’t typically find in an engineering department to help me make progress on our research.

The Wearable Technology Lab, with all the other experts in wearable systems that we have here in the College of Design, is the perfect place for me to be to make progress on the projects and problems that I find most interesting.

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