INTERVIEW: DuoSkin, Wearable Technology Hailing from Taiwan Street Fashion Culture

INTERVIEW: DuoSkin, Wearable Technology Hailing from Taiwan Street Fashion Culture
Photo Credit: DuoSkin / Jimmy Day

What you need to know

It was awarded the 2017 SXSW Interactive Innovation Awards in March, the same award Twitter and Airbnb have won in the past. And it was inspired by the inexpensive and highly accessible street fashion in Taiwan.

We all went through the temporary tattoo phase at some point as a child; whether it was hearts, dinosaurs, cars or a random prize out of the cereal box. Just when we thought we were past the age, metallic temporary tattoos took the market by storm with their polished glamor. Beyoncé even teamed up with a temporary tattoo brand in 2015 to launch her own line of metallic body art.

But did you ever imagine controlling your mobile device or storing information with an inexpensive self-customized temporary tat? This is what DuoSkin offers.

DuoSkin allows users to create three types of user interfaces via the temporary wearable tattoos: input on skin through capacitive touch sensing; output on skin through thermochromic resistive heating circuitry; and, wireless communication via near-field communication (NFC). That means you could adjust the volume on your smartphone, just by touching one of these temporary tattoos.

Watch this video to see how the technology works:

DuoSkin:Functional, stylish on-skin user interfaces from MIT Media Lab on Vimeo.

“If you look at wearables today, they are usually black plastic wristbands designed by people in Silicon Valley,” says Cindy Hsin-Liu Kao (高新綠), developer and researcher at DuoSkin. “They don’t speak to me, which is why, though I’m a wearable technology researcher, I never wear wearables. It just does not go with my personal aesthetics or my identity.”

The new body art technology was created by MIT Media Lab, where Kao is a fourth-year doctorate student, in partnership with Microsoft Research. It was awarded the 2017 SXSW Interactive Innovation Awards in March, the same award Twitter and Airbnb won respectively in 2007 and 2011.

DuoSkin aims to embody the wearer’s sense of identity, regardless of gender or cultural background.

“With DuoSkin, we think about this possible future where all these technologies get so close and integrated to your body,” says Kao. “This is why we designed it as more of a craft. You can craft the way it looks, you can craft what function it has, so it really can speak to the wearer.”

Kao believes this is what people at SXSW liked about the technology; that it provided a different perspective toward wearables and where they might go. The researcher thought deeply about self-expression when planning the demo at the annual event, and had mannequins with several different skin tones to highlight the inclusion and diversity wearables can offer.

“The technology is supposed to be very malleable and customizable,” says Kao.

DuoSkin proved its flexibility when it appeared at New York Fashion Week (NYFW) in January, ahead of SXSW. Fashion designer Chris Bevans, a former MIT Media Lab director’s fellow, reached out to Kao to customize DuoSkin for his new menswear clothing line just about two weeks it was to take the runway at NYFW.

Kao was unsure whether to do it or not when Bevans first contacted her because it was a menswear fashion line and many had commented her technology was “really feminine.”

“But the thing is, it’s actually not,” says Kao. “I really hate it when people say it’s technology for women. It’s definitely technology from a female perspective, but it’s not just for women. This is a really important point I try to get across.”

When asked if she has any concerns that showing at NYFW would take the focus away from DuoSkin being accessible to anyone and not just high fashion, Kao says she doesn’t.

“The thing with DuoSkin is it can do both,” says Kao. “It can look so polished and elegant that it can be part of a high-end fashion line, but it can also be very accessible that anyone can purchase at the price of a temporary tattoo. I think that’s the power of DuoSkin.”

Photo Credit: DuoSkin / Jimmy Day
DuoSkin allows users to create three types of user interfaces: 1) input on skin through capacitive touch sensing,2) output on skin through thermochromic resistive heating circuitry, and 3) wireless communication through NFC.

How it all started

The idea of creating customized functional tattoos comes from the motivation behind all of Kao’s work — inclusiveness, accessibility and diversity in technology.

Hailing from Taiwan, the researcher says she grew up in an environment where cosmetics and street fashion is very cheap and accessible, which is now ingrained in what Kao feels about things that go on bodies and technology.

In Taiwan, or East Asian countries in general, the cosmetics industry is so huge in variety while being cheap and accessible, says Kao. She grew up being very used to the fact that she could easily change her look and express herself by changing the color of her hair or nails, trying on different clothes, using interesting application tools and so on.

“It’s a very important part of who I am and how I view the world,” says Kao. “I want to create technology that’s as simple as I’m just putting on a nail art sticker or I’m just wearing a temporary tattoo or I’m just wearing makeup. Just being, you could say, a minority in this industry motivated me to create this work.”

Through not just DuoSkin but all her work, Kao hopes to offer users the freedom to express different perspectives through wearable technology, which is also what she believes technology should look like in the future.

Photo Credit: DuoSkin / Jimmy Day
DuoSkin enhances the aesthetics of existing metallic jewelry-like tattoos by embedding LEDs in silver leaf traces.

Looking to the future

The wearables market is set to become worth over US$25 billion in the next five years, according to industry analyst firm, CCS Insight. It also indicates the market is set to grow from 84 million units in 2015 to 245 million units in 2019.

However, according to a December 2016 eMarketer report, usage of wearables has not expanded beyond early adopters with younger people being the heaviest users. Still, it estimates roughly 30 percent of people between 18 and 34 will be wearables users in 2017. The report also notes a gender shift happening among wearables users and predicts more wearable users will be female by 2018.

Whether or not DuoSkin will be entering the market soon still hasn’t been decided though the project that started in the summer of 2015 is mostly completed, Kao says.

“We’re exploring more applications and demo opportunities,” says Kao. “We’re still trying to figure out what would be a better option, but we are open to possibilities.”

Editor: Edward White