Object 36

Active Clothing

2031, Victoria & Albert Museum, England

According to Western culture in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the ideal man and woman should strive to be slim, tanned, and unblemished. Such traits would signal their exceptional health, wealth and freedom to spend time outdoors indulging in leisure and physical pursuits — opportunities that lower-status manual labourers and office workers lacked.

But the imperfect were not bereft of hope; they could still climb towards this pinnacle of beauty by spending their scant time and money on expensive gyms and diets, on sunbeds and cosmetics. These solutions were advertised and prescribed everywhere you turned, in magazines, newspapers, websites, games, TV, billboards, public transport, all showing doctored images of 'perfect' bodies. They said: if you want to be happy and loved, you should be beautiful. Which meant thin.

It wasn't always so. The ideal body shape has varied throughout history — just look at any painting or sculpture from before the 20th century and you'll see that slim people were often perceived as unhealthy. In contrast, the powerful and rich were stouter and with lighter complexions, because they could afford to stay and work indoors and eat more food — not like the peasants who had to work out in the sun on farms.

During the early 30s, many cultures remained obsessed with appearance. Anything that could help people become slim and toned — or at least, appear to be slim and toned — would sell well, especially if it was quick and required little effort. Something, perhaps, like this 'active vest' I've borrowed from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

To someone from the 30s, it'd look like any other plain white cotton vest — thicker and bulkier and not very stylish, but nothing too unusual. But when I put it on, I can tell there's one very big difference: it can move! Right now it's slowly contracting around my stomach and abdomen and shaping my torso into, well, what it thinks a proper man should look like.

All of this contracting and relaxing is accomplished through muscle-equivalent electro-active polymers woven into the fabric of the vest, along with thin, flexible batteries. Originally, the technology wasn't invented to make people look good — instead, it was a matter of life and death. Clothes that could apply pressure to an area meant they could slow down and stop bleeding, vital for the military and emergency services.

In such an image-conscious society, you can imagine how well the vests were received. Tens of millions were sold, and the technology soon found its way into dresses, trousers, T-shirts, jeans, and more. But to be fair, it wasn't all about beauty; active underwear also provided real health benefits to those with circulatory and muscular problems.

In 2033, 'next-generation' active clothing went on sale, providing haptic 'force' feedback to wearers. Active clothing expert Chi Ying from the V&A Museum explains:

"We all know about the supposed five senses: sight, smell, touch, hearing, and taste. For a long time, the notion of adding more senses was dismissed as foolishness, especially since we know that our brains are structured in a way that makes them highly efficient at processing those five sensory stimuli.

"But our brains are not set in stone — they have 'plasticity', so areas can adapt their function over time. That means we can map new senses onto existing ones, like the ability to sense north or detect electromagnetic fields. In the case of haptics, we can map the position of 'north' onto a vibrating belt around the waist, exploiting our high degree of sensitivity to physical stimuli."

Sensing the opportunity, active clothing manufacturers developed an open-source 'haptic software platform' and apps flooded the market. One popular virtual reality game of the time, Désir, developed an add-on that allowed partners to sense each others' emotional and physical states through subtle vibrations and contractions; a tense buzzing might indicate fear or anger, while a slow ebb and flow would signal happiness. Other apps propelled games to new heights of realism, replicating the sensation of being punched or hugged or shot.

Active clothing wasn't just a one-way proposition, either, as Chi Ying explains:

"Once you've got someone wearing a garment with electro-active polymers, you can reverse the process to measure where and how the garment is being deformed — to see how people's bodies are moving in real time, how they're breathing in and out, how they're twisting and stretching. And if they're wearing absolute positioning sensors like rings or thimbles, then you can create a perfect image of their precise movements. Aside from the obvious medical and artistic applications, it means that the whole body can be used as an input mechanism rather than just people's hands and voices."

It's quite astonishing to think of how crude interfaces were before active clothing. There's no doubt that our hands and voices are extraordinarily versatile tools, but they have their limitations and can't be used in every situation. Creating a real 'body language' allowed for an entirely new and often subtle set of glyphish-type gestures to be used in combination with glasses, contacts, and necklaces.

Despite its utility, though, not everyone bought into active clothing.

"It was very difficult to learn body-glyph-language accurately — people who hadn't grown up with it found it tricky learning how to control their bodies and muscles in that kind of precise way, so there was a genuine 'clothing divide' with young or technically adept people on one side, and others who were more used to subvoc and tablet input on the other," notes Chi Ying.

One group who positively loved body language was one that didn't have any other — babies! A simplified version of body language was derived from 'baby sign language', which allowed babies to signal whether they were hungry or tired or afraid. Active dungarees and tops made it easy to teach and translate 'baby language' at the very earliest ages, helping to finally break one of humanity's most persistent communication barriers. Out of the arms of babes...