Tattoos and stylish clothing are on the agenda at TEDMED next month in ways that are anything but frivolous. Neural Interaction Lab creates “epidural electronics” that function as flexible electronic sensors – think temporary tattoos – that can comfortably track your biometrics, Another group, Open Style Lab, offers a platform for people with disabilities to collaborate with engineers, designers and occupational therapists to create functional and fashionable apparel that meets their unique needs.
Open Style Lab founder and Executive Director Grace Teo dreamt, in different stages of her life, of careers in fashion and science. Earning her PhD in medical engineering and medical physics at Harvard/MIT put her to work in hospital environments. There she encountered a woman with multiple sclerosis whose stories about her difficulties accomplishing even the most mundane and routine tasks in her life gave Grace the idea to combine her passions by making beauty accessible to all people.
Grace recounts how, in her desire to solve “serious problems,” she asked the woman what she missed most about being healthy. She answered by describing her difficulty, that morning, of dressing independently. This need, “so starkly basic and intimate” usually goes unnoticed, Grace explained, adding that “as a child, I had always wanted to be a wardrobe designer, so I jumped at this opportunity to combine my medical engineering training and interest in creating beauty!”
Grace notes that she is “#BreakingThrough assumptions about disability and beauty by bringing to life the clothing dreams of people with disabilities.” Her goal is to overcome the lack of awareness of the functional shortcomings clothing poses for the disabled and the lack of strong fashion industry presence to meet this need. “We are focused on making full use of every opportunity to grow a community of partners, manufacturers and retailers with whom we can change the fashion landscape to cater to people of all abilities,” she says.
Collaboration is also baked into the culture at Neural Interaction Lab, where Todd Coleman leads a research group developing wireless tattoo technology that transmits medical data. Spanning the disciplines of medical electronics, machine learning, and public health, the team creates multi-functional, flexible bio-electronics that provide information for use by both patients and clinical decision-makers. Todd tells us that he is “#BreakingThrough traditional boundaries by identifying important medical problems that inherently require different perspectives and bringing people from different backgrounds to work together with a singular focus on attacking these problems in a manner that can make sustainable change.”
The tattoo-as-medical-device concept evolved gradually, Todd says, as he worked at the intersection of engineering and medicine. Identifying an “unmet need” for less obtrusive sensor technology, Todd began to understand that, as he puts it, “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” Technology will only work if people are willing to use, or in this case, wear it. A key insight was that technologies and algorithms needed to be developed “in lock-step with trusted community engagement, with an eagerness to understand context and by partnering with other organizations focused upon empowerment.” Underlying the work of Neural Interaction Labs is a contextual and social awareness of solutions’ users and what their unique challenges or opportunities for adoption may be. These tattoos may be life-altering, it turns out!