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By Joel Klebanoff

Digital Duds

Victoria, the superb, skillful, superlative editor, recently sent me a link to a article about the work that researchers at the MIT Media Lab are doing to develop digital clothing that can alter its look on demand. (Victoria is truly deserving of high praise, but you can usually read my use of two or more complimentary words about her in a single sentence as foreshadowing my intention to write something that I fear she might censor. Actually, there are a couple of slightly risqué lines this week. You'll know them when you see them, assuming, of course, they're still there when you read this.)

These revolutionary new clothes will include organic light-emitting diodes (OLED) woven into the fabric. The wearer will be able to download patterns to update his or her wardrobe without having to buy new shirts, pants, or whatever. Wireless downloading will mean that wearers will be able to alter their fashion anytime, without the need to change clothes or to be tethered to a computer or a hardwired Internet connection.

I just hope that the clothes remain opaque rather than becoming transparent when the battery wears down. Otherwise, I'm going to be making a lot more trips to the gym before venturing outside wearing any of these garments.

The inventors envisage people passing their favorite patterns to friends, allowing the designs to disseminate widely and rapidly. Ah, excuse me? Probably ever since our ancestors first started wearing something more elaborate than leaves, many people have felt severely mortified whenever they walked into a room where someone else was wearing the same outfit. I've never quite understood why that's cause for consternation, but many people break into a cold sweat and develop hives in such situations. For the duration of the gathering, they turn into total social misfits as a result of their agonizing humiliation. Yet the propeller heads at MIT think people are going to intentionally create situations where this will happen much more frequently? I don't think so. (Just as an aside, maybe the reason that wardrobe redundancy doesn't bother me very much is that every time I walk into a room, I do so as a total social misfit, so my angst can't descend any further than its ever-present depths.)

"Oh," you say, "but with these clothes, people can immediately change the pattern as soon as they recognize their faux pas." Uh huh, but answer me this: Who's going to be the one to give up their favorite design? In the past, the only two choices were to live with the discomfiture or leave. The latter was so obviously ridiculous that only the most insecure would bother leaving. But I can just hear the arguments that will develop once it becomes easy to change the pattern on your shirt. People will revert to their inner three-year-old. "You change." "No, you change." "No, you!" "NO, YOU!" The argument will quickly escalate into fisticuffs. You don't think people will be that petty? No? A few past wars have had equally irrational, although admittedly much different, causes.

No, I don't see people using this technology to share clothing designs among all of their friends, family, and colleagues. At least I hope not, for the sake of world peace.

The people who I do see using this are advertisers. I already hate it when clothing makers splash a logo on the clothes they try to sell me. I don't buy stuff like that. I'm a marketer, so I'm not opposed to advertising, but advertisers usually pay to advertise. If a clothing manufacturer sticks a small version of its logo in an inconspicuous spot on a shirt I like, I might reluctantly buy it, but if the manufacturer or seller is going to splash a honking big corporate banner front and center on my shirt, it can damn well pay me to be its walking billboard. I'm certainly not going to put out my hard-earned dollars, or any dollars that weren't particularly hard-earned for that matter, just so I can walk around displaying their commercials. I may be easy, but I'm not cheap.

Then again, getting paid to sport advertising suggests an opportunity. Why not hock space on your clothing on eBay or on maybe on a Web site dedicated to clothing ad sales that some clever entrepreneur builds once this apparel becomes available? (Note to clever entrepreneurs: Please visit my Web site to find the address to which you can send the royalty checks for the use of this idea.)

Of course, advertisers are willing to pay more for advertising space that is seen primarily by people who are most likely to be positively (positively in the advertiser's terms) affected by the ads. Therefore, I see this being integrated with GPS technology so the ads displayed on your clothes will depend on your location. For example, if you're in a supermarket, a toilet paper manufacturer could advertise its brand on the seat of your trousers. At lunchtime, your shirt may read "Eat at Shlomo's Rib Shack" should you happen to be within easy walking distance of Shlomo's restaurant. Or if you're in a bookstore, your clothing might display…no, never mind. I've already plugged my book too often in these columns.

I also see this invention being used as an updated version of 1970s mood rings. For the benefit of those of you who are unfamiliar with mood rings, let me explain. Their color changed based on your body temperature or, more accurately, your finger temperature because, being a ring, that's where they were worn. The color of the ring was supposed to indicate your mood.

With this new technology, clothing manufacturers should be able to go so much further than the old mood rings. For one thing, rather than just displaying your mood unobtrusively on your finger, your clothes will be able to splash it boldly across your body. And why stop at just body temperature? Why not also include sensors that pick up heart rate, brain wave activity, and the strength and pace of your breathing? Then your clothes could do a much better job of accurately reflecting your mood.

Think of how this technically advanced clothing could be of benefit in your everyday human interactions. If you're feeling happy, people can share in your joy. If you're feeling sad, people will know to offer sympathy and to try to cheer you up. If you're feeling extremely irate, possibly bordering on homicidal, people will take one look at the blood-red color of your outfit and give you a wide berth. And if you're feeling…no, there aren't enough compliments in the world sufficient to stop Victoria from censoring the line I was about to write. Use your own imagination to fill in the blank, but, please, keep it clean. I can't assume responsibility for your thoughts. Let's just suffice it to say that if anyone ever films a remake of the 1978 movie Sextette, Mae West's last film, they'll have to update what is arguably West's most famous line (a line that, rumor has it, she said in Sextette simply because she had been so often misquoted as having said it in an earlier film). Instead of referring to a gun in a pocket, whoever plays the West part in the remake will probably say something like, "Has your shirt just been through a plutonium field, or are you just glad to see me?"

One warning: Since lying usually triggers physical responses in the liar, used car salespeople and politicians would be well advised to avoid this apparel should the inventors decide to incorporate my mood display suggestion.

The link to the article appeared in a Ziff Davis news compendium by Jim Louderback. In his introduction to the article, Louderback said, "My biggest fear? Someone hacks my shirt and pastes an indelible 'Kick Me' sign to the back."

That would certainly be embarrassing, but I can think of worse things that an evil hacker could do. For example, what if someone posted a message on every garment a particular woman was wearing, in spots visible to everyone else, but not to her, that issued an invitation of the sort I'm not allowed to write about here. If someone, who was neither the hacker nor in any way in cahoots with the hacker, accepted that invitation, could he use that plainly evident invitation as a defense in a sexual harassment or a sexual assault trial? Maybe you'd better just stick to analog clothing to be on the safe side.

This article originally appeared as part of a weekly series of "Tech Tirades" in MC TNT from MC Press Online. The first year's worth of Tech Tirades does not appear here. Instead, you can find them in BYTE-ing Satire.

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