January 24, 2006 7:58 AM PST
Geek designer wears tech well
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handy a box of random electronics that can be disassembled for fun or function. In the box is an 8-year-old laptop left over from her science fair days. "I've been meaning to take it apart and turn the LCD screen into some sort of visual display thing, but I haven't gotten a chance yet," she said.
The box also contains standard practical tools--an Exacto knife, for example, wire cutters and a cordless butane soldering iron that's Eng's been known to tote around in her backpack.
"It's easy because you can carry it your purse," she said. "If I'm working on a project and it breaks, (the iron) will be hot in 10 seconds."
Recently, Eng has taken her gadget-assembling know-how public by helping to launch Switchit.tv, an online do-it-yourself show for girls designed to teach them how to use everyday objects to make accessories and apparel that embed technology.
In episode one, for example, Eng and her co-host, Alison Lewis, create a picture frame that records voice messages. Push a button behind the frame to record the message; play it back by pushing a button on a little iPod-like case, made from a dental floss container, that's attached to the frame's front. In an upcoming Switch segment, Eng will show viewers how to rig a purse so it blinks when the cell phone inside is ringing.
Eng says she's passionate about turning girls on to gadgets.
"I'm not sure gadget creators are aware of girls' needs," she said. "I think they're trying to be, but their solution seems to be just making things pink. There's the pink Razr and the pink iPod...that doesn't necessarily make it more girl-friendly."
For one thing, she wants to see changes in the ways gadgets are marketed to girls. "They'll have a picture of the guy using the gadget and then the woman in a bikini or something," she said. She'd also like to see gizmos that can be used as accessories. "Girls are willing to spend a lot on fashion and jewelry," she said. "You can always have electronics that are jewelry and they would easily sell."
Fractals meet fashion
Some might have trouble imagining soldering irons, wire cutters and fractals as graceful complements to the glamorous world of fashion. Eng doesn't see a contradiction. She wants geeks to embrace fashion as an outlet for self-expression.
"I kind of think of fashion as the easiest way for people to express themselves to other people," she said. "When you see someone, the first thing you'll notice is their self-presentation, and that comes down to how they're dressed and how they're styled."
Currently, her tech-inspired garments are prototypes, which means Eng's far more likely to suit up in jeans and a T-shirt than overalls that double as a hard drive. She lacks the funds, she said, for the appropriately durable fabrics and smaller electronics that would make for more wearable garments.But she can see such garb being widely worn down the road.
"As the components become cheaper and cheaper, we're definitely going to have them in more places," she predicted. "If you had a camera that was the same size as a button, wouldn't you definitely have one on your shirt so you could take pictures of things secretly? Or maybe it would just help you log your day."
Gunn of Parsons sees a similar future for the kinds of garments Eng and designers like her envision, but said those clothes won't come without design hurdles.
"The challenge for the designer is the customer's uncompromising position on looking good and feeling comfortable," Gunn said. "If a cell phone is stashed in a pocket in one's lapel, then it had better be invisible. The designer's challenge is to make technology be truly seamless."
Eng's specific challenge as a designer, Gunn said, will be to eschew the impulse to emphasize bells and whistles over wearability.
"Diana's strength is also her weakness: her conceptual ability," he said. "While it can propel her to unexpected and successful achievements, it can also derail her by being too ridden with gimmicks."Eng said Gunn's feedback on the show made her far more attuned to the intersection between innovation and usability. To that end, she is currently absorbing her newfound "Project Runway" lessons, thinking about graduate school and imagining her ultimate gig: designing for Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs, whom she admires for making technology more user-friendly through products like the iPod.
"I would have a lot of fun designing an outfit for Steve that incorporates elements of technology, math and science," she said, "so that he can better express himself through the clothes he wears."
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