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Microsoft Researchers Get Wrapped Up in Smart Scarf

In the quest to make wearable electronics useful, researchers take a close look at the neck.
January 21, 2015

Microsoft researchers have created a scarf that can be commanded to heat up and vibrate via a smartphone app, part of an exploration of how the accessory could eventually work with emerging biometric- and emotion-sensing devices. It could, perhaps, soothe you if a sensor on your body determines you’re down—a function that could be particularly useful for people who have disorders such as autism and have trouble managing their feelings.

A paper on the project, called Swarm (Sensing Whether Affect Requires Mediation) was presented on Sunday at the Conference on Tangible, Embedded, and Embodied Interaction at Stanford University.

Michele Williams, a paper coauthor and graduate student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who worked on the project while she was an intern at Microsoft Research, says the group chose to focus on a scarf in part because it can be a discreet way to house technology, unlike, say, a medical device.

The current prototype—which the researchers made after consulting with people with autism and hearing and visual disabilities—is a flexible laser-cut garment made of hexagons of industrial felt overlaid with conductive copper taffeta. Some of the modules can heat up, while others can vibrate.

All the modules are controlled by one master module that is also responsible for communicating with the smartphone app over Bluetooth. The modules link together with metal snaps and are interchangeable; if you want a heat-producing module closer to your stomach and a vibrating one on your neck, you can unsnap the chain and reconfigure it, says Asta Roseway, a principal research designer at Microsoft Research and a paper coauthor.

Roseway demonstrated for me over a video call how the scarf works. She pulled it off a mannequin and wrapped it around her neck, unsnapping one module and then snapping it on to the end of the chain. She turned it on and paired it with a Swarm app on a smartphone, then turned on the vibration function.

Though the metallic design of the scarf might appeal to some, it’s meant to fit inside a sleeve when worn, researchers say. That way, “you don’t have to show everyone, ‘Hey I’ve got tech all over me,” Roseway says. “It’s subtle.”

Williams would like to add the ability to cool the wearer—potentially useful for calming you down since sweat can be an indicator of stress—and add a music player so people could activate custom playlists based on their moods.

For now, though, the project is more concept than creation. Because Swarm was a project undertaken during Williams’s internship, it’s unclear whether work on it will continue.

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