Interview with Erich Zainziger a.k.a. talk2myShirt, part 1: Hooked up to wearable electronics

by deborah on 03/29/2011

Erich Zainziger does consultancy, training and design of interactive fashion, e-textiles and wearable electronic. He’s also a blogger behind talk2myShirt dedicated to smart fabrics and wearable technology.

Because of his previous experience with Philips Company I wanted to interview him from the moment when I decided to cover the fields of wearables… Erich lives  and works now in Philippines and runs his own wear tech company Elextile… Hence, let’s hear his thoughts on the  wear tech scene…

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Photo above: Erich Zainzinger, from personal album
Photo bellow: Zainziger’s design – Solar Bag (c), taken from flickr


So, Erich… How is to be a boy in the mostly girlie area as wearable technology scene is?

EZ: Oh, when I started on wearable electronics back in 2001 there have been more boys than girls but this changed dramatically over the past years, which to my opinion is very beneficial for the further development of wearable technology.

Why? Boys usually think very rational and functional especially if electronic tech is involved. But to my opinion wearable technology is first and foremost highly suitable for the emotional aspect, should serve the enhancement of aesthetic rather than functional purpose. Wearable tech should add playful and visually appealing accents to fashion.

This is not to say added functionality with the use of wearable tech is not desired but the main objective I see is the emotional aspect and this is why girls are more attracted and understand better the potential of wearable tech compared to the boys  😉

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Erich Zainziger’s Solar Bag (c)

How did you get involved into eTextiles and tech wearables?

EZ: Having worked in the past for a large electronic company in a team looking into the future of technology in the personal electronic domain (MP3 player, cell-phones, …). I came across another team at the same company that started basically the wearable electronic public awareness by creating the first commercially available (although very limited quantity and extremely expensive) ICD+ Jacket.

I got hooked instantly when realizing the opportunity for the electronic industry to create a new business segment in providing these new, ‘soft’ technologies of the future. At the same time I realized that the garment industry with the intense competition on costs is looking for new ways to differentiate and to connect – literally – to the digital life style.

Add 1 + 1 and you get a huge opportunity for both industries and best of all, a new consumer experience I see has the potential to revolutionize the fashion industry like the cell-phone has done for mobile communication over the past 10-15 years.

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ICD+ jacket from Philips and Levis (c)

You are very interested in luminal aesthetics and LED art… When did this fascination with light start?

EZ: Like almost everyone – light has something magical and influences the emotions to a great extend. OK,  that was my preferred answer but in reality, my textile illumination involvement started out much more practical, technical.

While working on a soft control for jackets and bags I encountered the problem while running user tests that there is not physical/tactile indication when a key is pressed, tactile like to get when pressing any keyboard on any device you have. And having the device inside a bag or jacket pocket there is no visual confirmation if the device is on/off when in pause mode or muted. So integrating control options into clothing or bags without any visual indication was a bit turn-down during user testing.

So, the idea came up to place next to a textile keypad a textile illumination field as indicator of a device status inside the pocket – that simple but turned out a big technological challenge back in 2006 when I started working on that.

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Emotions Jacket by Philips (c)

You have working experiences with Phillips… What is like to work with such a big company?

EZ: Companies the size and structure of Philips opens a lot of possibilities for innovators. They can provide the free-space needed to think and work on something crazy ideas, they offer almost unlimited pool not only of funding but more importantly access to very smart people from many different fields.

I greatly enjoyed working there for many years and finding my ‘calling’ for wearable electronics, getting me access to any and all resources I needed to educate myself and learn the inside views of almost all aspects, the technological, industrialization, business and marketing. These helped me to make the next step of getting started on my own.

The downside of working in such larger companies is that if a new development is too disruptive to the company’s business strategy – it will stop the support and ground such new developments. These groundings are not always based on shortcomings of the technology or product application but made out of a business strategy which I think is a bit sad and disappointing. So one has to draw a line and either accept to fit into a company’s DNA or evolve and get into new adventures.

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Emotions Jacket by Philips (c)

How could big companies, such as Philips, Adidas, Nike, and Apple, enrich the scene? What are the strengths or weaknesses of these relations between designers, fashion designers, artists and huge companies?

EZ: A few years back it seemed that a cooperation between famous brands from technology and fashion is the solution to move wearable technology into the limelight of public awareness.

A few years fast forward I am now more convinced that such big-brand cooperation might not be the best solution. Strong brands have their very own, strict structures to follow – no matter how innovative they like to be seen.

I think the future of innovation is more on new comers, on startups and young dynamic brands. I do not want to give names here as I am in business relation with some of them right now.

New, dynamic companies do not have any legacy to follow and are much quicker to embrace new technologies.

You hold patents for fabric inventions, too. Could you tell us more about your patents?

EZ: I am part of a team of inventors on these patents which belong to my former employer. The patents I am involved are all around the integration of light elements into textile structures = textile illumination.

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Leah Buechley wearing Lilypad on her back
Photo: Leah Buechley (c)

What do you find as the most crucial invention in the field of wearables in last few years? Taking into perspective all possible techniques: low tech, high tech, bio art and performative arts…

EZ: To be fair and objective I say that every and any step big or small was and is crucial for the advancement of wearable technology. At first it appeared using garments to extend the UI for portable products is the next big thing but as we know now it didn’t really catch on in the wider market.

But these first adoptions awakened the curiosity of people, especially the innovators. The easy accessibility of basic electronic functionality in form of the LilyPad Arduino enabled people without more people to be able to experiment with technology integrating into apparel and other wearable objects.

Having followed the development of wearable electronics for a long time I think the LilyPad and it’s infrastructure developed by Leah Buechley ignited the buzz around wearable tech especially in the DIY community but also to attract educational institutions to take wearable technology into the formal education.

Jump into the second part of the interview: Let’s electrify yarn and fabrics!