University of Maryland

Tangible and Wearable Technology

One area of research that has seen exciting growth within the HCIL is the field of tangible computing. As devices become increasingly affordable, wearable technology is finding an endless array of applications, from the recreational to the educational, from interrogating social interactions to improving user experience. Faculty and graduate students with the HCIL are engaged in a variety of innovative projects aimed at using cutting-edge technology to improve users’ everyday lives.

Dr. Jon Froehlich is one HCIL faculty member whose research centers on this emerging field. An Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science and co-founder of the HCIL’s Makeability Lab and Hackerspace, Froehlich has been involved in a number of projects exploring the social impacts of e-textiles and other tangle computing technology. One such project is Social Fitness Fabric, which displays runners’ speeds on their shirts. While devices such as Fitbit privately tracks users’ metrics, Social Fitness Fabric is intended to display users’ data where anyone might see it. Runners wearing the device reported that this more public display encouraged them to push themselves further and perform better.

Wearable technology is not only valuable in recreational context, however. Another project undertaken in the HCIL is exploring how embedded computing can be used as a teaching tool: BodyVis, developed by Froehlich and PhD student Leyla Norooz, helps children understand their anatomy and bodily functions through embedded computing. Through an iterative design process and co-design sessions with children ages 7-11, Norooz and Froelich created a t-shirt embellished with plush organs that make visible bodily processes like breathing and digestion. The garment is interactive, too, so users can remove organs to learn about different parts of the body. By encouraging interactive learning, BodyVis engages young learners and makes abstract concepts of anatomy concrete. BodyVis is currently supported by an NSF Cyberlearning grant, in collaboration with HCIL faculty Dr. Tamara Clegg.

Froehlich has overseen a number of tangible computing projects undertaken by graduate students, both in his Tangible Computing course and as part of research by students in the PhD and Master of Science in Human-Computer Interaction (HCIM) program. In each case, tangible and wearable technologies present opportunities to enrich our experiences and enhance the ways we engage with the objects around us. For instance, “I Like This Shirt“, developed in collaboration with Ladan Najafizadeh and Seokbin Kang, used touch sensors and LED displays to recreate in person the virtual experience of “liking” a social media post. The e-textile toolkit MakerShoe, developed in collaboration with Majeed Kazemitabaar, Leyla Norooz, and Mona Leigh Guha, allowed children to create personalized, interactive shoes by alleviating some of the challenges many younger novice users face with such projects.

Ultimately, Froehlich says, it’s not enough to think about tangible and wearable technologies simply about things we touch or wear. Instead, they should be regarded as a medium for enhancing and transforming the way people live their lives.