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Researchers fuse technology and textiles to explore how we connect with our world

April 29, 2022

We turn on technology from the moment we start our days—but imagine if it was already integrated into everyday objects around us. In the School of Interactive Art and Technology’s Everyday Design Studio, founded a decade ago by SFU professor Ron Wakkary, researchers are infusing textiles with technology—weaving ‘threads’ of Wi-Fi into fabric—as a way of pushing boundaries to further understand how technology impacts our lives.

Doenja Oogjes, who recently completed her PhD in SFU’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT) combines the tangibility of textiles with technology to investigate how we shape our relationships with connectivity.

Oogjes’ research, carried out in the studio, focuses on the relationships between humans, things, and our environment. As these relationships continue to grow, her interest in exploring them through textile fabrication led to the design and creation of two Everyday Design Studio projects—one, a textile Wi-Fi antenna, and another project called Wifi-no-Wifi.

During her design and development process, Oogjes says the materials often guide the direction. “As a designer I am never fully in control of the processes,” she says. “This gives more voice to materials of design practice.” Oogjes incorporates “materials speculation” in which unexpected or different materials can bring forward broader or different concerns.

Doenja Oogjes seen here testing the conductive weaving on the textile Wi-Fi antenna project.

The antenna, created by weaving a conductive material directly into a tapestry fabric, was conceived as a way to understand our relationship with home routers and the internet. Typically, devices like home routers or modems are hidden as they can be visual eyesores. 

“The internet has become a part of our life, but we never materially experience it,” says Oogjes. The team plans to expand its project to look at ecological relationships between technology and other species—specifically bees—by studying the detrimental effects that Wi-Fi signals cause to them using the textile Wi-fi antenna. 

Oogjes created the first woven prototypes and the team is continuing to work on the project with Milou Voorwinden, a jacquard weaver at the Dutch-based EE Label, with other team-members including SFU student Henry Lin and Wakkary.

Prototype fabrics of the Wifi-no-Wifi project and a paper origami concept of how it would unfold.

The Wifi-no-Wifi project involves a play on the idea of the Internet-of-things (IoT). IoT devices are everyday items that have smart functions built into them, like lightbulbs or smart home speakers. Oogjes worked with Pauline van Dongen, a fashion designer and postdoctoral researcher at Eindhoven University of Technology, to design a woven, flower-like object with an origami structure that pops open when it detects that there are no nearby wireless networks around it. The work involved spending several 4-hour sessions at Emily Carr University of Art and Design’s TARP Lab working with its TC2 jacquard loom.

The idea behind the piece is to understand how a person would care for it—either to actively open the object or to keep it closed. “We wanted to think about what it’s like to carry something with you that has the potential to surprise you,” says Oogjes. “We wanted to play with the idea of care and awareness around how much connectivity there is around us in our everyday society.” 

The WiFi-no-WiFi project team also includes van Dongen and SFU students Henry Lin, Tiffany Wun and Mandeep Mangat, and Wakkary. 

The studio, since its founding, maintained an open-door policy of international partners coming to work with the studio. “For people who want to work here and collaborate with us we will find the space for them,” says Wakkary. “The kind of research we do is very hands-on and design-oriented; it’s more than just exchanging words in a text in a paper."

 “Looking at the evolving relationships we have with technology, our design work is constantly asking, what do we really want out of technology, and what are the impact that they have on our day-to-day lives? To evolve and have a long standing, sustainable relationship with technologies, we need to understand technologies as they are.”

- Ron Wakkary, Professor, School of Interactive Arts and Technology

The studio thrives on attracting designers with different backgrounds and creative and critical perspectives, says Oogjes. “We really do some exciting, risky and sometimes silly work which I always appreciate, that there’s room for that in academia.”  

Oogjes, who graduates in June, hopes to continue working in textile fabrication research and academia, adding, “I would love to create a design space with the similar energy and the ability to create these kinds of projects.”

Learn more about the Everyday Design Studio here.

Read more about Doenja Oogjes’ work here.