ASET Technology Alberta Summer 2020 - 27
Calgary couple marry art
Art and technology, sometimes viewed as the two solitudes
in the professional arena, have made a successful marriage
thanks to the ingenuity of Kathryn and Ryan Blair. The
Calgary couple have been collaborating for years on
designing interactive wearable art.
Kathryn Blair, a PhD student in computational media design
at the University of Calgary, has participated in seven local
MakeFashion events since 2013, showing wearable smart
art that utilizes an exciting range of effects to explore
humanity's relationship with technology.
For example, one of her pieces, Common Experience,
involves a model wearing a NeuroSky EEG headset to
measure brain electrical activity. The data received by
the EEG controls the colour of the lights and changes the
tension in origami pieces on the collar piece.
Another, Positive Feedback, is connected to the internet
and monitors a specified account's Twitter activity. The hem
of the garment's skirt is raised and lowered, and the lights
attached become brighter and more animated depending
on the account's level of activity and popularity.
A dress entitled Tune uses electromagnetic field sensors to
detect ambient electromagnetic activity and represent it on
a network of lights. The more electromagnetic activity the
sensors detect, the more active the fire-inspired animation
on the garment becomes.
For any artist, one of the hardest aspects is making
imaginative ideas like these a reality. Blair was able to create
many of the desired effects herself using the open-source,
accessible Arduino platform. But when she wanted to make
her garments move, she hit a snag.
"Electronics and fashion are not natural partners. Bodies
move. And if there's one thing electronics hate, it's being
moved in unexpected ways," said Blair.
To realize the complex motion she wants in her pieces, she
relies on the expertise of her husband. Ryan Blair is an ASET
member and certified engineering technologist (C.E.T.) who,
during his day job, is a mechanical engineering technologist,
serving as a project manager and designer within a crossfunctional, multidisciplinary team.
This poses some interesting challenges for him. The first
is that he is designing projects on a completely different
scale from what he normally does in his job. Since the parts
are mostly 3D printed, the design must be optimized for
that instead of more traditional manufacturing processes.
Consideration must also be given to the aesthetics.
The second challenge is discussing the project with someone
who doesn't have concrete technical requirements in the
same way that his regular clients do. At first, he found it
difficult to ensure that he had a clear understanding of what
was needed. As a result, some of his initial designs resembled
what he would create for a heavy industrial setting.
Ultimately, the process has helped him learn what clarifying
questions to ask, and how to present options for review. A
benefit is that it forces him to think about a problem in a
different way. He routinely finds himself using functions in
his computer-aided design (CAD) software that he otherwise
wouldn't explore, so it allows him to develop those skills.
He admits this is his first foray in the arts. Though he
considers himself creative but not artistic, he sees no
reason why a person with technology skills can't participate
in artistic pursuits.
"I think these arts-based projects allow people like me to
take on different challenges we may not usually experience,"
said Blair. "They can also give us the chance to explore
theories and methods that are different from what we do for
a living. And, of course, there's the fact that work like this
offers a means for self-expression."
"While the perception may be that technology and art
often exist in isolation from each other, we've seen over
time that technology facilitates new tools for artists to
use to express themselves. It's a natural harmonization of
interests. The wearable art created by Ryan and Kathryn
Blair are a fascinating example of this," said ASET CEO
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TECHNOLOGY ALBERTA | SUMMER 2020 | 27
ASET Technology Alberta Summer 2020
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