Material: Responsive Clothing – Nina Walia

Wednesday, January 29th, 02020 at 11:11 UTC

Nina Walia is an Experience Designer for ubiquitous technology and emerging platforms. Currently, she is weaving technological experiences into interactive textiles and surfaces at Google. Her previous experience includes overseeing innovative, award winning designs intended to motivate, inspire, educate, and improve people’s lives for Nike, GE, PBS, and the Office of the First Lady, Michelle Obama. Most recently, Nina was working as Experience Design Lead on Jacquard, a collaboration of Google and Levi’s.

She holds four design patents for her work and has spoken about her craft at many renowned conferences, such as the Interaction Design Association’s (IXDA) annual conference, South By South West, Games for Change, the International Conference for Interaction Design and Children, and the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union’s annual workshop.

She is passionate about community organizing, and co-founded Subcontinental Drift, a nationally syndicated group to encourage South Asian Americans in the arts. She sometimes reminisces about her days as musician, record label owner, and DJ.


Couture is the act of designing, creating and selling of custom fashion clothing. It isn’t mass production, it is limited run, maybe even for a single person.

The Web is not just for screens! We’ve been exploring speakers over the years who’ve been trying to create interactions that are not focused on standard keyboard or mouse input to a screen.

The Google Jacquard Project is one example of attempting to connect, control and interact with our devices and the larger Internet via a new interaction paradigm: clothing.

Nina’s unique background of blending couture fashion with technology and engineering brings a new perspective on what’s possible. As she says, a lot of people think that adding technology to clothing means putting LEDs on them, but she explains how that is too short-sighted.

Since people have a spectrum of abilities; sometimes we’re fully able to use a mouse, keyboard and screen and other times we’re not. It’s not just screen-readers we’re talking about, it is the foray into voice commands for those with our hands full, or in moments when it is inappropriate to be ‘elsewhere’ on the phone.

Nina explained her interest in ‘Interactive Textiles’, sometimes called ‘Responsive Clothing’. In her context, she was talking about soft garments.

There are several aspects to making interactive textiles. Firstly, there needs to be some input. That is either direct input via touch and gestures or via sensors like accelerometers, pressure, bend/stretch, etc. These values are then sent through the garment via conductive thread to a processing unit. That interprets the input and maps it to output.

A simple example is the movement of raising your arm as input and increasing the volume as output. Normally, when people talk about interactive textiles the output is an LED. That isn’t particularly high-fashion, but it is a good ‘hello world’ example.

People have been sewing conductive thread into cloths for hundreds of years, but it is only recently that we’ve been able to create hardware and tools to capture the input and do something with the output.

Conductive thread has some metallic part to do the conductivity. This makes it brittle and susceptible to breaking when using in mass-manufacturing processes. Conductive thread is therefore sewn by hand to prevent stretching and breaking. This doesn’t lend itself very well to mass-manufacturing.

The Jacquard Project’s aim wasn’t to design couture clothing, it was to create a platform and method for anyone who is creating, ‘ready-to-wear’ mass-manufactured products. This created several new requirements that couture items didn’t.

Input sensors and output devices along with batteries won’t do very well in the laundry and conductive thread was too brittle for heavy-duty sewing. These are where the digital and the analog worlds rub up against each other. The digital tech of 1s and 0s is consistent, but the real world is messy, literally!

The team solved the thread problem and decided to do it in denim because that was actually one of the hardest materials to manufacture, and Levi’s was nearby. The sensors were pushed into a small, removable button and the processing power was pushed to your phone. Rather than duplicate functionality, the phone did a lot of the heavy lifting.

Material Conference is designed to explore the underlying reasons, abilities and affordances of the Web. It isn’t dependent on input or output devices. So then, what benefits or new super powers do we gain when we remove our common interfaces?

Couture  Web

The Web has gone through several phases in its short life-time. In the very earliest days, people composed HTML by hand and FTP’ed the files up to the server. Then came along tools like Microsoft FrontPage, iWeb, Dreamweaver and more. These allowed anyone to design webpages via a document WYSIWYG editor. This was the early couture phase of the web. Every page was lovingly handcrafted and each could be completely unique in style, design and flavour.

Soon after, the CMS came in, from WordPress to Medium, all the pages were templatized and started to look and feel the same. We entered into the mass-manufacturing phase. Then social media took it to the next level and removed the customisation part altogether.

If we start to think again about the Web and Couture, we aren’t just talking about the look, but the interaction. For a long time now, the way we interact with the web has been point and click gestures. These gestures need to be taught and are limited and fairly binary. Click, no-click, swipes and scrolls are directional.

These gestures can’t convey the full range of language and emotion. They are utilitarian and functional.

The Web has been about utility rather than expression for a long time now. Why hasn’t it been more about expression? Is it harder for us to capture expression via our input?

With garments and sensors, Nina wasn’t detecting gestures. She was tracking movement. There is a big difference in ‘hand up and 30 degree angle’ gesture and the sweeping movement of your arm upwards in a dance.

Wearable art influences you to move via their shape and interactions. Clothes are not a utility. Many of us don’t consider our cloths to be an expression of ourselves. It’s a shirt, so what? Every morning you picked a particular item to be worn because you want to express yourself in that way. Your wardrobe is an extension of your personality. The Web should be the same.

Interactive textiles is bridging this physical world and the social practice of language as improve. It is no longer about simple poking gestures. Your bodily motion is much more expressive than a single finger.

Let’s consider this future for the Web. One not of gestures on a glass screen but full body kinesthetics instead.

You can view all the video recordings and subscribe to the Material podcast on the Material Archive site.