Alan Cane: All dressed up for cyberspace fashion

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Some people, it seems, are prepared to pay good money to dress their avatars, their virtual presence on the internet, in the height of fashion. These digital images of themselves need some kind of outer covering and so somebody has to design those clothes and, presumably, be paid for doing so.

For those of us without a virtual net presence and/or only a rudimentary interest in clothes, this might seem a trifle ambitious, not to say profligate. Surely consumers could simply rely on the dress sense of the software specialist responsible for creating the avatar?

Or perhaps software houses could provide a set of designer tools to enable individuals to design their own apparel?

For some reason, this possibility brings to mind the words “ink jet printer” and “desk top publishing” the convergence of which proved conclusively that page designers earn their money: the ability to mix serif and sans serif typefaces is not given to all.

And fashion is important: it is, as the experts would have it “the best form of iconography we have to express individuality” and “a form of shorthand enabling us subtly to read the surface of a social situation”. So let those of us who can’t tell interlining (something to do with dress making) from interlacing (something to do with cathode ray tubes) refrain from snide comments: this is becoming big, important psychological stuff.

So big in fact that research under the general title “Interrogating Fashion” and involving the London College of Fashion and others under the leadership of Sandy Black, is being funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences and the Arts and Humanities Research Councils.

It intends to “explore research themes which span the entire spectrum of fashion creation” - from basic concepts to three dimensional body scanning and beyond.

This research is rooted in the here, now and immediate future. The development of novel materials which change pattern or colour, for example, or the use of print technology to create materials that are difficult to fabricate economically in other ways.

There is a distinction between clothing that must be designed to accommodate technology - pockets for mobile phones, iPods or digital organisers, for example - and clothing in which technology is integral to the design - jewellery, for example, which is capable of communicating wirelessly with jewellery worn by another person with a view to promoting social interaction.

We already see a primitive form of this in personal organisers which exchange “business card” information via infra-red or Bluetooth.

Another possibility would be conference spectacles or contact lenses - essentially video screens on which you would be able to read the personal details of people met at conferences, obviating the need to dislocate your vertebrae bending over to read lapel badges. (With the added benefit for the clothing industry of an end to suits perforated by badge pins.)

On the other hand, prophets of digital developments such as BT’s futurologist Ian Pearson are thinking much further ahead. He predicts a future which accommodates parallel physical and virtual worlds - and where appearances will count in both.

Discussing the areas where fashion and IT could share the catwalk, Mr Pearson notes: “The biggest of these (new domains) is the duality of appearance where we may appear one way in the physical world and have a whole range of digital appearances in the augmented reality and virtual environment worlds.”

To date, this has chiefly been of interest to video games players. The tools already exist to allow them to attach a digital image of their own faces to their avatars. The latest generation of consoles based on superfast processors and digital signal processors is bringing a new level of reality to games.

Within a few years, if the quality of the latest digitally animated movies is anything to go by, the illusion of reality will be almost perfect. With universal broadband in place, Mr Pearson’s prediction could be realised.

If, that is, there is much popular demand for well-dressed avatars in cyberspace. It is entirely possible that they will be adopted enthusiastically by young people who will use them as social gambits in which they need not give away their identities at the outset - a sort of internet version of a Venetian masked ball.

Mr Pearson lets his imagination run away with him (it is his job after all). He predicts, within 15 years, the emergence of nano-technology-based make-up which can be simply smeared on the face and controlled at the press of a button.

He predicts an electronic control level called “active skin” whose chief function could be security or medical monitoring but could also play a role in adornment. He argues that “the lowest layers of active skin would be in contact with blood capillaries so could monitor blood chemistry, including hormones, so these could give extra clues to emotional states. These layers will also permit connection to the nervous system”.

We are, of course, dangerously close here to the foothills of transhumanism, the notion that the human animal is far from being at the end of its developmental cycle but that it will need technological adjuncts to fulfil its destiny. It is a big step from deciding whether your avatar would look better in green or blue.

Sandy Black, leader of the Interrogating Fashion project is Reader in Knitwear at the London College of Fashion. It begs a variation on the old joke: “If I gave her the wool would she knit me transhuman?.”

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