Augmented (Fashion) Reality

Earthquakes, global warming, patent lawsuits… it’s all a bit much, sometimes. Even a sober-minded “moral guide to the future” needs a break. So today, we talk about fashion.

Fashion may sound like an odd subject for a futurist to think about, but it’s often an indicator of broader cultural trends around sexuality, material technology, gender roles, and money. Moreover, it is in many ways the polar opposite of the kinds of long, slow trends that I tend to think about, which makes it interesting simply as a counterpoint; Stewart Brand famously put fashion at the top of his pace of change chart, with “nature” at the bottom.

Pace Layering - Stewart Brand

Fashion is also an example of rapid-iteration evolution. Is there a better example of natural selection in action than Project Runway? (Okay, not natural selection, but you see what I mean.)

Let’s start with a scenario:

It’s 2020, and at least half the people you pass on the street have some kind of Augmented Reality device in operation. Most of them use “arglasses,” which look like a normal pair of eyewear, with again-trendy thick frames. Some still use a handheld system–they’re the ones trying not to look too much like tourists (or crime-victims-in-waiting) by holding their phones out in front of them. A handful have opted for the fancy new digital contact lenses, with all of the AR capability of arglasses but none of the bulk. You do have to carry a little pocket device that takes care of the computational smarts, but you probably do that already, anyway.

Augmented Reality is finally on the good part of the hype cycle, having recovered from the disappointments of the early 2010s. One very useful addition is the ability to recognize the signal of nearby smart tags, the advanced RFID tags that seem to be everywhere now. Initially a way to work around imprecise GPS, smart tags now are used primarily to provide AR data, either to give pinpoint information (in a store, for example), or to add an AR layer to something that moved around frequently, like a vehicle… or clothing.

Yep, clothing. I remember the first time I saw an AR outfit. I did a double-take, because I could have sworn that the woman had been wearing a fairly bland dress when I saw her at a distance, but suddenly she was wearing a sparkling gown that I could swear was made of diamonds. A few minutes later, I took off my arglasses to get something out of my eye, and *poof* her dress was back to the simple beige shift. That bland outfit was actually carrying a half-dozen or so specialized smart tags, providing abundant 3D data that my arglasses–and the AR systems of everyone else around her–translated into that diamond dress.

Now, of course, AR clothes are everywhere. Even people wearing otherwise fancy or elaborate outfits will often have an AR layer (fashion industry jargon is “shimmer,” I think) that gives an added pop to the look. But the newest trend is really something–clothing that appears to be made of a material that could never be real. Just last night, I saw someone in a pair of pants made of fire. I imagine they got a lot of “liar, liar” jokes at that party…

How plausible is this? It would require a couple of big developments that aren’t here yet: wearable AR systems that don’t make you look like a dork; ubiquitous RFID-style tags that can actually hold a fairly large amount of data; and a display standard so that every AR system translates a data signal into the same look. All of these are more than plausible, but certainly not inevitable.

Virtual clothing wouldn’t just add a single RFID to an existing shirt. I suspect that for something like this to work, it would require that multiple locations on the outfit have their own tags, so that the AR layer can properly follow the body. You’d also want to have tags all over the outfit to make sure that there aren’t any “dead zones” where the virtual clothing isn’t visible (as with the AR “tattoo” below).


I do think that fashion may end up being the “killer app” for wearable augmented reality systems. This is in part because it’s not simply task-oriented–like finding a restaurant or where your friend is currently lounging about–but experience-oriented. It becomes part of your life. Moreover, the technological aspect is both intrinsic and invisible. That is, it wouldn’t be possible without the technology, but the purpose is something entirely non-technological: changing the way you look. Finally, there’s a “network effect” at work–the more people who have the AR systems, the more interest there will be in the virtual clothing, and vice-versa.

Of course, it could be just another fashion trend. And as you know, with Augmented Reality, one day you are in, the next you’re out.