Costumes as Controllers

Kaho Abe is a New York-based game designer and artist inter­ested in improving social and personal exper­i­ences through the use of technology, fashion, and games. We asked her about her history with wearable technology, and how she thinks we might see techno­logies integ­rated into our everyday clothing in future.

Who are you?

I am a game designer and media artist. I am currently the Artist in Residence at the NYU Game Innovation Lab. I design and build digital games played in the physical world with the purpose of encour­aging face-to-face game exper­i­ences. Digital games are often played alone, staring at screens using tradi­tional game controllers or the keyboard and mouse. By building custom controllers from scratch I try to bring the game exper­ience out of an isolated screen-based exper­ience, more into our physical world. I explore how physical games can poten­tially be more rich, intense and meaningful, and yes, sometimes awkward and even confrontational.

While I teach and love exper­i­menting with the various techno­logies I use, I often build the technology after the game concept and the desired inter­ac­tions are clear, for a more human-centric exper­ience rather than a techno-centric one.

More recently I have been further combining my interest in fashion with physical digital games, examining how costumes can be game controllers. We play video games that often have avatars, and we play the games through the avatars. I would like to know what happens when the player starts dressing like and playing the role of what we have known as the avatar. Does this create a more powerful, more immersive game exper­ience? And when we embed sensors and switches into the costumes, the player can play the game through the costumes. Gestures and other physical movements can be read. How does this add to the player’s exper­ience? This is something I explore in my newest game, the Lightning Bug Game.

What interests you in the fashion world? How has that branched off into your unique explor­ation of fashion’s inter­section with technology and gaming?

I fell in love with fashion because I love the stories that fashion tells. I have stacks of sketchpads from my youth of outfits I sketched, each time imagining the scenario: where she is going and why she’s dressed up like this. Our clothing tells stories about us, and as a fashion designer, I felt like I could write the stories in the clothing. This is what pulled me to become a fashion designer, although after several years I took a break from my career, to combine fashion with my other love, technology.

In 2003, I went to graduate school to study wearable technology, and ended up also studying game design. In graduate school it became clear to me that fashion was not so much a means of self-expression but rather a means of sending social messages about what role we want to play in society, and how we want others to perceive us. And even people who claim to not be inter­ested in fashion think about it everyday when they get dressed. There’s a reason why someone might wear a business suit to a meeting, rather than their pyjamas and their bathrobe. With this in mind, my thesis was about using tradi­tional garment trims, like snaps and buttons, to interface with personal devices, such as cellphones and MP3 players. In this way the user could wear the technology without it inter­rupting the intended social messages.

In 2010, when I became an Eyebeam fellow, I decided to concen­trate solely on game design, but the wearable game controller kept reappearing in my work, in the form of the vests in Mary Mack 5000 and the latest iteration of Hit Me! during my fellowship. Learning new fabric­ation methods including the 3D printer and the laser cutter, as well as the ease of use of low-cost tools like Adafruit’s FLORA and the IOIO board for wearable technology projects, has made it easier for me to explore this area. So things kinda came together naturally.

In what ways are technology and gaming changing or influ­encing fashion?

Although fashion is seemingly always changing, if you look at it over the years, it really hasn’t changed a lot. Pants, shirts and skirts in cotton, wool, silk and leather have been used to clothe us forever. And there’s a reason for this — it’s our intimate relationship with the clothes that we wear. It’s a part of our daily lives and also it’s the closest thing in proximity to our bodies. There isn’t a lot of room for fussing with it. What role can technology take in such a strong relationship? Although we will always see examples of wearable technology as fleeting trends, I think it can be said that until we can identify reasons to justify the existence of technology in this age-old relationship between the body and clothing, there will be no long-term integ­ration of wearable technology in our regular daily fashion.

However, there are cases today in specific scenarios like for athletic and medical purposes, where we can already see a lot of successful examples of wearable technology. I think it’s similar for games — by adding gaming as another layer of function­ality to wearable technology there can be more meaning to embedding the technology into wearables.

When it comes to wearable game controllers, there is still a lot to explore. As our mobile devices get smaller and more powerful, they can be embedded into costumes, creating sophist­icated game controllers. And when the technology is hidden, it can add to the magic as well as the story in the game. In the same way our daily clothes commu­nicate social messages, costumes can commu­nicate inform­ation about the character in the story.