A New Vision for Wearable Tech

A New Vision for Wearable Tech

Senior Alexandra Ju 16 JM creates playful robotic wearables designed to stand out and elicit responses.

When Bay Area native Alexandra Ju 16 JM first arrived at RISD, she initially embraced the opportunity to distance herself from the tech-obsessed world of Silicon Valley. “I wanted a complete break,” says the senior. But halfway through her Foundation year, she discovered something better: a desire to make art that uses advanced technology to reflect on that culture critically. “I took Experimental Digital Fabrication [that first Wintersession] because it listed the most machines you can learn to use at RISD,” she says. “And after that, I was hooked.”

"I took Experimental Digital Fabrication [during my first Wintersession] because it listed the most machines you can learn to use at RISD. And after that, I was hooked."
Alexandra Ju 16 JM

Ju has followed that impulse ever since. As a Jewelry + Metalsmithing major, she integrates high-tech fabrication techniques into her jewelry-making practice and has found a variety of venues along the way to experiment, refine her skills and, most recently, add a fine artist’s voice to the growing field of wearable technology.

As a junior, Ju began developing a body of robotic jewelry while she was studying in Rome in the European Honors Program (EHP). After further developing the series last fall, she was invited to show it as part of this year’s international conference on Tangible, Embedded and Embodied Interaction (TEI). In February she had the opportunity to travel to the conference in Eindhoven, the Netherlands to present her work and a paper called Functionality in Wearable Tech: Device, as Jewelry, as Body Mediator.

Although the current trend in wearable technology is to house proprietary technology within minimalistic, inconspicuous parts, Ju combines electronic children’s toys with Roman-inspired bronze castings to create playfully satirical pieces. The work she exhibited at TEI’s The Body in Translation exhibition is bulky and heavy – and undeniably present on the wearer’s body.

"Now is a great time to make work at the intersection [of fine art and wearable tech], because wearables are still in enough of a fluid state for artists to have a say in how the field develops."

“A lot of people were confused [by this] at first,” notes Ju, who says that some viewers tried waving their arms in front of her work to see how it interacted with their movements, while others quickly moved on to pilot a drone at the next booth. The artist admits to enjoying the irony of people dismissing her repurposed children’s toys to play with these “toys for adults,” but says that those who tried on her devices had fun walking around the exhibition space and gained a clearer understanding of her design thinking. That’s precisely what she hopes for – that wearers and viewers will connect with her work on an emotional level.

In JewelJewel, the work Ju is making for her senior degree project, she asks how electronics can help “accentuate and deepen the traditional functionalities of jewelry,” citing her upbringing in Silicon Valley as motivating her to make hybrids of “kinetic art jewelry and wearable technology [that] become something other.”

Since coming to RISD, Ju has taken advantage of programs like EHP, the RISD/Brown/MIT Human + Computer workshops and a summer internship with Harman International to follow in the footsteps of innovators like Vernon Reed, whose 1980s cybernetic jewelry work continues to inspire her. She laughs at the tech industry’s predictable attempts to market wearable tech as a radically new phenomenon, and hopes to introduce a “jewelry first” perspective that’s sorely missing from the current approach.

“Now is a great time to make work at this intersection [of fine art and wearable tech], because once [the industry defines itself] it will be harder to break the mold,” Ju says. “Wearables are still in enough of a fluid state for artists to have a say in how the field develops.”

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