What Is an Actuator and Why Does It Matter for Fashion?

There has long been a relationship between movement and fashion.  A long flowing chiffon gown hovers in the air when the wearer walks.  Dramatic dresses, skirts, and jackets have always had a place both on the runway and in our wardrobes.

But hasn’t it felt a little bit as though the dazzle of fashion that once captivated the masses has died?  Is it amidst the hordes of fast fashion?  Or is fashion less mesmerizing simply because we are overwhelmed with new technology?  Wearables and Interactive Garments can take fashion to the next level by incorporating robotics, actuation, and AI.


Most of you have probably heard of the term Wearables.  Maybe you have made one.  Maybe you’re wearing one right now.  Wearables are electronic devices that can be worn and may be connected to other devices through Bluetooth or WiFi.  But most wearables fall into two categories of focus.  1- Input Wearables and 2- Output Wearables.  What do I mean by that?

Input Wearables are usually data collectors.  Think of the fitness tracking and health monitoring.  These devices are useful over time as we collect data about ourselves as well as about the population at large.  They feed into an interpreter, usually an app on our mobile device.  There isn’t much to do with the data after that.  We read it and leave it.

Output Wearables are the wearables that do ‘something,’ but aren’t necessarily responsive.  They’re programmed to do a single action or a series of actions.  They may have a simple trigger that technically acts as an input, but it is always the same. 

Actuated Garments

Firstly, what is an actuator?  An actuator moves or controls some kind of mechanical system by use of some kind of energy.  That energy might be hydraulic fluids, pneumatic pressure, or electrical current.

Actuated garments can be simple Output Wearables displaying mechanical output only.  Here’s what I mean: in the examples below it is usually unclear what is engaging the actuators to initiate motion. It is likely actuated by a simple switch that is triggered either by the wearer or another person involved in the performance.  Here is an early example of an Actuated Garment from Hussein Chalayan in 2000:

The Hussein Chalayan runway show from 2007 displays several forms of actuated garments:

Lea Albaugh created a series called Clothing for Moderns.  She created pneumatically actuated shoulder padding powered by a simple CO2 cartridge.


Robotics and Interactive Garments

There is another category of wearables with robotic behaviors, we’ll call these Interactive Garments.  They react differently in response to their environment.  They might integrate AI, computer vision, and a series of actuators.

This Project, Caress of the Gaze, is by Behnaz Farahi in collaboration with Pier 9 Autodesk and MadWorkshop.  It uses a hidden camera as an input device.  It uses computer vision to process the input and track the eye movement of onlookers.  It then outputs movement of the spines of the garment coordinated with the location of an onlooker’s gaze.

Input → Process Input → Output Actuation.

This is all happening in real time on the wearer’s body. 

An interesting thing to note about the credited folks on this project is that none of them are fashion designers.  In this new wave of technological fashion, there’s more to learn than ever before.  Architects and engineers are becoming more and more involved in the creation of wearable devices.  Fashion Designers and the like will be left in the dust if they do not adapt.

Ying Gao creates Interactive Garments. His projects incorporate miniature electric motors, LEDS, light sensors, switches and other components.  These are a great example of robotics integrated into wearable garments.



Wearable actuators aren't just for entertainment.  There is an entire field of research working on putting together wearable robotic exoskeletons.  These devices can aid in rehabilitation, assist in industrial tasks, and augment performance.  Having worked on them for several years, I could tell you a lot about exoskeletons.  This is perhaps the most useful application for wearable actuators and sensors.  

This Exoskeleton by IHMC is being worn by their pilot, Mark, who is paralyzed with a spinal cord injury.  He is fully controlling the exoskeleton in this video.

Multi-Sensory Reality

Actuators like small vibrating motors have been used in haptics for decades.  This video demos a device capability by Sarotis.  The user is blindfolded, using a 3D mapping device, they are able to give the user enough physical feedback through pneumatic actuators to navigate through a maze.

In the future, augmented reality takes on the multiple sensory experiences.


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Super excited about 'Caress of the Gaze?'  Check out this incredibly detailed tutorial from Makezilla on how it was made.