From Wearables to Soft-Wear: Developing Soft User Interfaces by Seamlessly Integrating Interactive Technology into Fashionable Apparel

Abstract. The development of electronic features for use in apparel has

advanced rapidly in recent years, and applications in athletic wear have been

particularly successful. However, ‘Smart Fashion’ has not yet been integrated

into everyday garments. In this paper we propose a new approach to the design

of interfaces in Smart Fashion, which we refer to as the Soft User Interface

(SUI). The ways in which e-textiles physically convey information differs

greatly from traditional ways in that information is communicated via graphical

user interfaces on computers, smartphones or on WearComp devices. As a

result of our research, we advocate the use of iconic and indexical signs for

Smart Fashion as these are widely accessible and understood. As an extension

to this new interface paradigm, we expect that the harvesting of biometric data,

including bodily gestures, will significantly extend the possibilities of SUIs.

Smart Fashion, applied semantics, gestural input, embedded

electronics, physical computing, wearable networks, hybrid space, interactive

technology, Soft User Interface, SUI.


Authors: Daniel Gilgen, Raune Frankjaer

University of Applied Sciences Trier, Department of Design, Trier, Germany


Please note: This material is subjected to copyright by Springer International. The original publication can be accessed here:


1 Introduction

Interactive technologies have been successfully integrated into clothing in industries

in which functionality is very important, such as sports, healthcare, security and

safety. Nevertheless, this remains a niche market, and Smart Fashion is not yet

common in everyday wear. Electronically augmented fashion is generally known as

illuminated outfits that are reserved for stage performances or other special events. In

this paper we discuss how Smart Fashion can be integrated into everyday clothing.

We examine the concerns that need to be addressed and the design requirements that

need to be met for seamless integration of interactive technologies into fashionable


A cooperative interdisciplinary design research project between the Department of

Fashion and the Department of Intermedia Design at the Trier University of Applied

Sciences constituted the basis for our investigations. This research, which focuses on

psychological design aspects as well as on semiotic and aesthetic issues, commenced

in 2011 and will be finalized by the end of 2014.

The application of new technologies to long-established products like clothing often

meets with strong resistance as society has very strict pre-established conceptions

about these everyday artifacts. Along with these cultural expectations come certain

habits and behaviors that are very hard to challenge, as they are associated with

objects for which the patterns of interaction are internalized at a very deep level.

These patterns are established over many generations and are passed on during

infancy. Thus, different types of clothing and clothing items are highly archetypical,

often with concise perceptions and with high iconicity. These archetypes are

independent of prevalent fashion trends and, in stark contrast to other technological

developments, evolve slowly. There are generally three ways to approach established

mental models in the field of new technology:



The technology can physically disappear into a known product, such as

imperceptible embedded sensors that track personal biodata and transmit the data to a

medical service. One example is the cancer-detecting bra developed by First Warning

Systems [1, 2].



A novel product category can be designed that is not associated with any

preconceptions. The Nike FuelBand, Jawbone’s UP and FitBit are examples of this

type of product [3, 4, 5]. One could argue that these devices are similar to

wristwatches or bracelets; however, the integrated functionality provides a novel

experience, so these technologies may be perceived as original and different.



A known product can be extended using interactive technology. The Sporty

Supaheroe Jacket for bicyclists by Utope is a good example of this. The primary

function of a jacket is to protect against adverse weather conditions, and the

Supaheroe Jacket extends this function by providing increased visibility and the

ability to communicate the cyclist’s intentions to others using the road [6].

This paper focuses on the third category i.e. applications in the field of smart

wearable textiles, which we define as Soft User Interfaces (SUIs). We position SUIs

as a subcategory of Wearables. But distinct from WearComp, such as augmented

glass technologies, smart watches and digital wristbands, so-called fourth screens rely

on text- and image-based communication.

In contrast, SUIs are “embedded computing worn on the body, made of soft and

flexible materials, and, being devoid of screens, exclusively rely on non-verbal

communication as a mean of interaction.” SUIs must be aligned with established

attitudes towards clothing and must be simple and intuitive to use. This can be

achieved by reducing the symbolic representations in the interface design [7].


2 Nonverbal Communication

With WearComp, as with any screen-based communication, the focus is on text,

image and auditory interactions. Thus, although the extent and importance of

nonverbal interactions in interpersonal communication is widely recognized,

nonverbal communication has not been integrated into human-computer interfaces in

Smart Fashion. Between 70–90% of all inter-human communication takes place

through wordless clues, which are primarily used to establish and maintain

interpersonal relationships [8, 9]. Understanding and applying these patterns of

communication is paramount for the development of SUIs, as clothing provides a

wide array of non-verbal communicative cues. There are many types of nonverbal

communication, and artifactics, proxemics, chronemics, kinesics and haptics are

particularly significant for the design of SUIs.


2.1 Artifactics

Artifactics denote the communication and non-verbal signaling that emerges from

personal accessories, such as dress or fashion accessories. The choice of what to wear

is an efficient means of communicating during social interactions: Clothing not only

conveys a message, but it also directly manipulates and influences how we and others

establish our identities. Clothing acts as an extension of oneself and can non-verbally

communicate a wide array of meanings, including identity, mood and attitude.

Identities that are communicated by dress are also influenced by technology and

society-wide moral and aesthetic standards [10, 11].

The aesthetics of a garment are important cues for interpreting dress. These include

the construction material and usage, manufacture (handmade vs. machine produced

vs. high-tech), design and historical references (innovative vs. traditional) and syntax

(use of colors, patterns and shapes).

When choosing what to wear, both conscious and unconscious decisions are made.

The primary considerations are suitability: Is the clothing suitable for the situation

(expected dress code, weather conditions and wearer’s persona)? Is it physically

suitable (consistent with one’s personal style and body shape)? People generally take

10–30 minutes to dress in the morning, but sometimes they take up to an hour (both

genders). There is a general unwillingness to complicate the process of dressing by

adding the need to configure a dress electronically. In fact, over the last hundred

years, clothing development has trended towards greater simplicity and towards

clothing that is easier to put on and wear [12].


2.2 Proxemics

Proxemics describes the use of space and orientation within nonverbal

communication. Proxemics differentiates between two kinds of space, territorial and

personal, the latter being of particular interest in the development of SUIs. This space,

termed the Personal Reaction Bubble, can be divided into four groups that are

associated with differing distances depending on the situation and the people

involved. Intimate distance is used for close encounters, such as embracing, touching,

or whispering. Personal distance is used with close friends and family members.

Social distance is used among acquaintances and is used in a workplace or school

setting, where there is no physical contact. Public distance is used when strangers

meet or for public meetings [13].


2.3 Chronemics

Chronemics are concerned with the use of time in the context of human

communication interactions. Chronemics is the study of the interaction time that is

associated with our formal and informal obligations. However, chronemics also

include subjective and personal temporalities [15]. In the design of SUIs, chronemics

offer a reliable and easily executable tool for control. For example, the duration of

time that a wearer chooses to spend in a place or in proximity to a certain object or

person generally reflects the wearer’s interest in the person or object. Chronemics are

mostly used in conjunction with proxemics. When applying these tools to the design

of a SUI, provisions must be made for situations in which the time and body position

is out of a wearer’s control, such as riding an escalator or sitting in a doctor’s waiting



2.4 Kinesics

Kinesics is the interpretation of non-verbal behavior as related to movement either of

a particular part of the body or of the body as a whole. These include facial

expressions, gestures and posture. Only a few gestures are universal, such as the

shrug, the ‘halt’ gesture and pointing, with slight culturalvariations in the execution of

the gesture [16]. Facial expressions, however, are to a large extent innate and are

therefore often universal and easy to read [17].

Unfortunately, it is difficult to integrate facial expressions into smart fashion

because using tracking technology on the face is both conspicuous and

uncomfortable. To a lesser extent, this is also true for the use of gloves or fingerings

to track hand gestures [18]. Therefore we assume that future e-textiles will have

embedded sensors, such as gyroscopes, flex sensors and accelerometers, that will

allow the tracking of gestures and posture. To some extent, these sensors can be

fashioned by exploiting the properties of soft materials that are used in the

manufacturing of garments [19]. Evaluating these data could be important for reading

and interpreting nonverbal cues.

In addition to using preconscious bodily gestures to better interpret the user’s

intentions, certain conventions used in body gesture control could be developed. Such

conventions are used in interactions with the multitouch surface of smartphones and

tablets. There has been little research into using sign language for bodily interfacing.

Existing research focuses on the use of camera-based tracking technology and does

not use data directly from the body [20].


2.5 Haptics

Haptics are concerned with the significance of touch and the impressions received

through touch. These include vibrations or motion, heat, cold and pressure. Vibration

is most commonly used in mobile technologies to convey information unobtrusively.

In Smart Fashion, haptic impressions are most commonly used to communicate

presence [21]. Although of the utmost significance in the human perception of reality,

haptics are not widely used in inter-human communication. In most cultures, the act

of touching is used only as a gesture of recognition when meeting or departing or in

an intimate situation. Some cultures do not touch at all in public. Another aspect of

touch in interfacing is the issue of hygiene, as for public touch-screen displays [22].

Therefore we have not integrated haptics into the SUI as a direct functionality

between wearers. However, haptics do provide ample opportunities for recipientbased

information mapping. Unfortunately, current technical possibilities are limited,

so that impressions will be intrinsically symbolic in nature. However, it is possible

that technical improvements in actuators, vibration motors and heating materials will

meet the necessary requirements to convincingly communicate an iconical haptic

input to the wearer.


3 Levels of Integration

Fashion is one of the oldest ways to express one’s personal identity. People are

generally willing to accept new fashions, yet new fashions are expected to be

uncomplicated to wear and to require no significant learning. In our research, we

found that in order to make technology an integral part of everyday clothing, we need

to develop a greater awareness of the level of integration. Integration can be

subdivided into four main elements that can serve as guidelines for integrating

interactive technology into fashionable apparel.


3.1 Signal level

Signals represent information in different ways, i.e. via symbolic, indexical and iconic

representation. Indexical and iconic representation are preferable, as they are more in

line with established perceptions and require little or no additional learning.

Symbolically represented information is either based on socio-cultural conventions or

has to be learned. Due to our ocularcentric perception, the visual signals and display

level of the garments are a primary focus. Wearing illuminated apparel draws the

observer’s attention to the wearer, as the animated light patterns tend to distract from

other (non-visual) information. Therefore light-emitting technologies have to be

applied very carefully. A well-executed example of this is the electroluminescent

fashion Alpha Lyrae by Vega Zaishi Wang. Wang applies the photonic material

indirectly to create an ethereal and pleasant effect that does not directly confront the

onlooker with an overpowering light source [23]. There are additional signals that can

be conveyed through tactile and acoustic cues rather than through visual cues that are

also important methods for conveying information. As we are continually aware of

tactile impulses, without the need for focused attention, tactile cues have the potential

to provide new kinds of wearable ambient displays [24].


3.2 Level of Interaction

Multitouch sensitive devices that have Natural User Interfaces (NUI) have gained

popularity in the last 5 years and standards of operation such as swiping and pinching

have been established [25, 26]. In fashion technology, comparable standards have yet

to be established, with a plethora of suggestions that range from zippers, hooks and

velcro to touch-sensitive textile surfaces. As the level of interaction is closely related

to the input possibilities, we questioned the ways in which the body, covered with

textiles, can be used as an input device. We studied gesture and movement for their

potential for intuitive affordances, analyzed the most common approaches and

compared the advantages and drawbacks. Our investigations confirmed the

expectations that body gestures are socially, culturally and individually determined

symbols. However, we believe that with the use of NUIs, more gestures can become

“intuitive” as the market becomes increasingly saturated.


3.3 Level of Connectivity

There are many different input options, from the wearer’s biometric data as captured

by sensors integrated into the clothing, to information from remote locations or

interactants. Accordingly, the level of connectivity can vary greatly. It begins in the

personal sphere of social interactions between two people and extends to group

interactions. However, when remotely extending beyond peer-to-peer (P2P)

communication, the need arises for an additional control mechanism to distinguish

among remote interactants.


3.4 Level of Privacy

Generally there are two main approaches to privacy in Smart Fashion. First, the

signals and signs that are displayed can be completely visible but only be

understandable to the wearer due the arbitrary nature of symbolic representation.

Alternatively, the signals can be invisible or imperceptible except to the wearer [27].

However, as SUIs aim to extend the function of fashion as a public display, the

wearer makes a decision about privacy when choosing to wear a certain garment. If

the wearer feels outgoing and communicative, a brighter and more expressive

garment can be chosen. If the wearer is in a more introspective mood, more

unobtrusive designs can be favored. This user-controlled approach to privacy is in line

with current practices for dressing.


4 Discussion and Conclusion / Further work

Clothing constitutes one of our main cultural assets and is deeply rooted in human

history. These traditions influence both clothing design and our perception of

clothing. For interactive technology to become a truly integral part of our culture,

these preconditions have to be acknowledged and respected. Only a few of the

examples that we studied reflect these aspects fully or even partially. Often it is the

technical elements that need to be improved substantially for the interactive garments

to truly become suitable for every day wear. For example, two important practical

considerations are the garment’s power supply and washability.

In our analysis of representative examples of Smart Fashion we deduced that apart

from the technical specifications, the design of the interface itself is of paramount

importance for the acceptance of Smart Fashion. We identified the following

parameters that should to be applied to the development of what we describe as the


The SUI is a subcategory of Wearables, which, in contrast to WearComp, is a

physically embedded interface with a textile or other flexible material that can be

worn comfortably on the body as the main substrate. The SUI has no screens and is in

direct contact with the user. The operation of the SUI relies on biometric and

contextually relevant data in conjunction with the nonverbal communication cues of

the wearer and other interactants.

An SUI must be as easy to use as any other everyday garment, and the interface

should not requiring any additional configuration or training. Consequently, the focus

must be on indexical and iconic representations within the user interface. As part of

enhanced apparel, an SUI can extend and amplify social interactions on a variety of

levels, including interactions with distant environments as well as with interactants.

However, when incorporating multiple remote connections, the issue of

distinguishability arises. We anticipate the areas of application of this technology to

be predominantly in inter-personal communication, although it will introduce novel

methods of interaction with surrounding architectural space or to remote locations

[28]. Therefore, one challenge in the development of SUIs is for the interfaces to

remain understandable to interactants in a larger network. We think that haptics have

great potential for information mapping when the technical issues are resolved.

We believe that the application of context-relevant data, and sensor-based data

harvesting and evaluation of nonverbal communication cues in particular, has the

potential to create a new paradigm for the design of SUIs. To accomplish this, it is

necessary to establish the positioning and movement of the body (kinesics) in

conjunction with distance (proxemics) and time (chronemics) with regard to a given

location. The ensuing seamless integration into everyday apparel should result in a

soft human-computer interface.



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