From open-source coding to building biomimicry-inspired cocktail dresses, innovation engineer Karolina Cengija shows how a new generation of women are blending traditional training with self-taught skills to break new ground with wearable technologies. Her creations have been hits on New York Fashion Week runways and the international Consumer Electronics Show.
Some people start down a career path at an early age, but at 12 years old Karolina (Karli) Cengija wasn’t interested in finding her dream job. She was fascinated by computers and open-source software coding, but never imagined that chasing those interests back in the mid-90s would lead her to the forefront of responsive wearable technology.
Today, the Intel innovation engineer helps fashion designers make adaptive clothing that shifts shape, changes color or communicates the wearer’s changing emotional or physical state.
Cengija brings a biomimicry approach to innovation. She tinkers with technologies and materials to bring new capabilities to clothes, but the critical part is making these technologies fit and function naturally.
“I want to help designers step away from mechanical, very jittery movement to more smoothed out, organic movements like something we would see in nature,” said Cengija.
Cengija recently helped cutting edge fashion designer Becca McCharen of Chromat create a winged Adrenaline Dress and reactive Areo Sports Bra for the 2016 Spring-Summer New York Fashion Week. Equipped with computing technology and sensors, the garments autonomously adjust to the wearer’s heartrate and perspiration levels.
The Adrenaline Dress responds by spreading or contracting its backside wings to express emotion, while the bra opens slightly to provide cooling comfort.
The sports bra was designed with a special material that reacts to computer commands to open vents when it senses changes in perspiration, respiration and body temperature.
“We used shape memory alloys with the goal to give it a more organic transition,” said Cengija, who said a class in origami paper folding inspired her work.
She emphasized these are not yet garments for sale, but that the experimentation is uncovering what’s possible for wearable technology.
“We took a lot influence from the animal kingdom,” she said. “We took into account things like plants, trees and things in nature that we interact with.”
Models wearing the Adrenaline Dress and Areo Sports Bra joined McCharen on stage during Intel CEO Brian Krzanich’s keynote at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show.
— Intel @ #CES2016 (@intel) January 6, 2016
Cengija was in the audience as her Intel teammate Todd Harple joined McCharen on stage at a wearable tech panel during CES 2016.
With the ability to read bio-signals such as heartbeat, brain activity and distraction levels, Wipprecht described the Synapse as a dress that “sometimes knows you better than you know yourself.”
“I’m a software person,” said Cengija, but her work on these garments is evidence this coder is more a modern-day maker and innovator.
Before arriving at Intel in 2010, she built computers but never worked with micro-controllers and servos, the computing and motion mechanism used to make moving toys and robots. Since then, she has integrated a head-mounted EEG biosensor with an iRobot and wireless technology to create a mind-controlled robot, which later allowed the Synapse Dress to react to the wearer’s emotional state. Whenever the wearer was excited, the technology flicked on lights and embedded camera, which recorded precious moments. The wearer didn’t have to move a finger.
Born in Bosnia, Cengija’s early knack for coding with the Linux open-source software community and her linguistic and philosophy studies led her down a circuitous path that today intertwines computer science, the Internet of Things, web design, robotics, biology and fashion.
“Being able to come into something new and have the curiosity and the confidence that you can investigate, or learn about it, or somehow tie it to something that you are already doing, that’s what innovation is all about,” said Cengija.
Easily accessible and programmable electronics help bring her collaborative ideas to life. Intel Edison and Intel Curie compute modules, for example, connect to body sensors that can measure a person’s respiration, perspiration and body temperature. These compute modules process algorithms that make microcontrollers or reactive materials move.
“Adrenalin Dress nods toward a future built around intelligent clothing that adjusts based on human whim,” said Cenginja, about her most recent dress project with Chromat.
Looking ahead, Cengija wants to evolve her biomimicry work.
“I am interested in responsive clothing, but also responsive objects in our houses,” she said. “Things that change based on our internal state or other things in the environment.”
She is fascinated by bioluminescence, the way living organisms use light to communicate.
“Imagine being able to choose what you wear based on where you are going and how that environment will make you feel, or what you want to communicate in that environment,” she said.
For a loud sports event, a person could choose something that illuminates with every fist pump or yell. Cengija also describes how a cocktail dress could shimmer or change shape to communicate presence at the party then change back to a simple black dress. Or a person going to a doctor’s appointment might wear an undershirt that hugs or sooths its wearer, using haptics to remind the person to keep calm. She imagines people wearing responsive clothes, like a blouse or vest that grows longer sleeves when weather cools.
She said people communicate via clothing every day, whether consciously or not. Technology, she said, just adds another dimension.
She correlates responsive garments to responsive websites that adapt to whatever device is viewing it.
At Intel, Cengija works on a diverse team that includes a mathematician, hardware and software engineers, scientists and anthropologists. Their backgrounds are mechanical engineering, computer science, computational and neural systems, nanotechnology, electrical engineering and astrophysics.
Crossing traditional boundaries between academic disciplines or schools of thought is something Cengija sees as essential to innovation.
“My coworkers all have strengths in different areas, and I lean on them a lot,” said Cengija.
Cengija is also influenced by singers Eliane Radigue and Imogen Heap, fashion designers Iris Van Harpen and Hussein Chalayan, architect Phillip Beesley, two-time Nobel Prize winning scientist Marie Curie, Linux kernel creator Linus Torvalds,
Cengija is also influenced by the singer Bjork. The Icelandic artist’s diverse, holistic approach is something she wants to apply to her own work whether it is fashion tech, software development, IoT or any systems-related work.
“Her curious, investigating, wondering childlike nature combined with the serious work ethic is inspiring,” Cengija said.
Cengija also wants to inspire young innovators to always follow their interests. “Personal projects you do for fun in your house can change the world,” she said.
Cengija said that the work she does, the tools and technologies she uses are accessible to everyone.
“Anyone can be innovator or a visionary because everyone encounters problems they need to solve,” she said. “Innovation happens. It is a creative process, and it is a process of discovery, but you need to have a problem that you are looking to solve.”
She said that the process for solving a problem often changes because of new discoveries or a desire to experiment. People hit roadblocks at different places, but increasingly there’s a community of people who can influence the process and lead to an outcome.
“I like going through the process by myself and building core skills, but where it really seems to take off is when you can connect with others,” she said. “Now that we have communities of people writing libraries of code and creating kits that people can use, it’s easier than ever for people to be inventive.”
At the 2016 Consumer Electronics