SENSOREE Connects Fashion and Technology for Better Health
SENSOREE creates wearable tech pieces that show how you feel inside to the outside world.
Photos courtesy SENSOREE
While attending the California College of the Arts to learn interaction design and industrial design, Kristin Neidlinger one day asked herself, “Where does the slouch start?”
“It really starts in your sternum, and that creates low back pain, compresses your organs, and affects your mood,” she told herself. Neidlinger attached a flexible sensor to the “sternum” of a shirt and programmed it with audio. If you started to slouch, a human voice — Neidlinger’s — began groaning like an old door. This was her “aha moment” — technology could give the body a voice.
Today the former dancer and bio-media designer is the mind behind and the founder of SENSOREE, a collection of bio-responsive fashion pieces capable of fostering human communication with incisive technology.
SENSOREE not only monitors your physiological states and translates those feelings into visual, auditory, or tactile displays (think lights, sounds, or inflation for example), but it also utilizes biofeedback in its designs. Electrical sensors offer feedback about your body, enabling you to relax muscles, slow your heart rate, lessen sweat and temperature, etc. — by informing you when and how your body is responding to certain stimuli.
While SENSOREE’s reliance on technology may seem at odds with what is often considered “human,” Neidlinger said she believes that the body is too-often silenced in communication, and her designs are aimed at fostering self-awareness, empathy, and re-imagining how people connect.
“It’s like a de-evolution,” she told me. “We’re using technology to get back into ourselves. We’ve become so distanced using technology that is supposed to connect us, but it leaves us feeling isolated. We can’t quite assimilate these technologies into our nervous systems even as these technologies are often an extension of our nervous system. The wearables are to re-embody and empower yourself. To be who you are and express it to other people. It’s all based on subtle body language.”
Neidlinger grew up dancing in North Dakota —“it’s the least populated state” she laughed — beginning with ballet when she was 6 years old. “It was such a great outlet for me as a human. That’s how I started developing these nonverbal tools for communication.” After moving “all over the U.S.” with her family — her mother was a career intellectual and was busy receiving “degree after degree”— she became a professional dancer in the Bay Area, but she dislocated her ribs, clavicle, and shoulder and suffered a concussion, which required that she relearn spatial awareness. Working though her traumas, she became inspired to help others.
Neidlinger left the professional stage behind and became a physical therapist and a healer at St. Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco, specializing in treating dancers and performers. Soon enough, the hospital was sending the Dance Medicine Clinic its hardest cases — folks still suffering from strokes, for example — because the clinic had such an impressive success rate in helping people recover. “It was Pilates-based PT centering on a mind-body connection,” she explained. “We were re-patterning people’s brain with neuroscience.”
Neidlinger said that those people with dance knowledge — that sensory awareness of their body in space — proved to recuperate much more quickly. “It’s an invisible thing, but that physical control is so valuable. If they know their body, they can rehabilitate so fast. Older people didn’t have physical education in school and starting from that place — This is your body. This is the difference between good pain and bad pain. — there was so much to learn.”
Neidlinger took that clinic experience with her back to school at CCA to see if she could make tools for ergonomics and body awareness. At CCA, she fell in love with creating circuits for wearables on the human body, and her first semester project was the “Slouch Screamer.”
“I got a lot of support and a lot pushback at the school. There were a lot of old-school professors who wanted to maintain the more conventional integrity of the design community,” Neidlinger said.
But she persevered and worked on projects there to address Sensory Processing Disorder. SPD is a condition in which the nervous system has trouble processing information from one’s senses, and so people with SPD can be keenly sensitive to their environment — including light, sound, or even the feel of clothing against their skin — and may not be able to communicate their emotions with the deftness or subtly they’d like, thus inhibiting genuine connection or mutual understanding with others. About one in 20 people are thought to have SPD.
Neidlinger created three prototypes: the Inflatacorset, the NATURA pathos, and the GER Mood Sweater.
The Inflatacorset is a shirt whose body and collar will inflate depending on the wearer’s heart rate, hugging the wearer to comfort him. “Uniform pressure calms your nervous system,” she said. “Everyone wanted a high collar — it makes people feel safe — and it became my trademark in a lot of ways.”
For NATURA pathos, Neidlinger made shoe insoles filled with moss and rocks, coupled with a wireless audio device to convey the sound of footsteps. “The tactile-audio is an efficient and natural way to focus the mind,” she said. The first iterations of her mood sweater — of which there were only 15 — were forged by local tailors and seamstresses in Oakland. “We plan to keep it local for this next run too,” Neidlinger said.
The GER Mood Sweater is a high-collared sweater that interprets emotion using Galvanic Skin Response, which reads electrodermal activity using small 3-D printed sensors on the wearer’s palms, displaying excitement levels in real time with an illuminated collar. Neidlinger’s work was showcased in 2017 at Yuri’s Night at Chabot Space & Science Center, an international party commemorating the launch of the first human into outer space, Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Author and astrobiologist Loretta Whitesides donned an early iteration of the sweater at the event, showcasing her fluctuating emotions throughout the night and the importance of nonverbal communication for astronauts. “That is my next dream — to have my tech in space,” Neidlinger said.
The GSR of someone’s body — the heat and sweat — is essentially uncontrollable. “It’s like blushing,” Neidlinger said. “It’s a very honest read of your body.” What began as a two-color excitement register has evolved into five states of communicable arousal, from tranquil (teal) to ecstatic bliss (yellow).
While Neidlinger’s work has yet to be adopted by NASA, she has taken her initial Mood Sweater design from school and developed it exponentially further. She’s currently working on her Ph.D. and writing a book on what she has coined “extimacy” — externalized intimacy. Neidlinger has showcased the beneficial possibilities of SENSOREE’s Mood Sweater in a wide range of applications from health care and therapy to fostering workplace focus and communication. She recently completed a successful two-week study of children with autism in the Netherlands and plans to publish its results soon. She is also working with an acupuncturist in Berkeley around achieving “flow” states — that elusive feeling when you’re so focused you lose time — as well as doing studies on PTSD and how best to unpack the complicated emotions around fear, helping people reprogram their mind-body connection using her biofeedback wearables.
“The system is a feedback loop for behavior change and is applicable to many caregiver-patient relationships,” Neidlinger explained.
“Looking at diagrams isn’t fun. It’s actually been proven to stress people out, so that goes back into my ‘extimacy.’ We’re taking biosensors to read how you’re feeling on the inside and expressing that to the outside world. There are already occupational therapy rules around this — hugging in regards to autism, for example. Lots of autistic people don’t want to be hugged by a person, but the pressure of a wearable or machine feels good. The kids really loved it.”
Neidlinger said that the next frontier is parsing out good excitement from nervous excitement. “We’re working on getting at that subtly. Emotions are so complex.”
The Netherlands will be the first country where SENSOREE’s Mood Sweater will be available to the general public in clinical spaces, in a “sensory room type scenario.”
“But I would like it to be available to everybody,” Neidlinger said.
“We’re continuing to do research with the therapeutic world, but it’s also a mindfulness tool for the greater population. Enhancing awareness and empathy would change the world,” said Neidlinger. “That’s what we need. Bringing your emotions and being vulnerable can make people a lot healthier.”
If you’re intrigued by this technology, you can sign up to be one of the first people able to buy the SENSOREE Mood Sweater at MoodSweater.com. The price is still undisclosed while Neidlinger works with her manufacturers, but the product is poised to go to market in December.