Wearable Computing: Automation and Fashion in Second Life

Holy transcoding, Lev! One of the interesting recent developments in Second Life fashion is the increasing extent to which programming and automation are a part of virtual dress-up. An interesting example of this is a line of clothing from one of Second Life’s greatest and oldest design houses: PixelDolls. What initially caught my attention was the following ad:

Sign for Second Life skirt describing its HUD for on-the-fly color and fabric changes

As I research Second Life fashion, one feature I’m always on the watch for is the language or even cultural logic of technology showing up in unexpected ways, and this sign really grabbed my attention. In plain English, it says that the skirt comes with an HUD (heads-up-display) that enables the user to change the color and fabric of her clothing while she is wearing it. According to the Universal Font of All Knowledge, an HUD is an interface or data display that doesn’t obstruct a user’s view; HUDs were originally developed for military aircraft and later became a common metaphor for first-person shooter video games. Here’s how it works:

Avatar against a white background, with two HUDs visible

Here I am standing in the skirt against a white background. At the right of the screen are two HUDs. The lower one controls my body’s poses and animations, e.g., how I sit and my gait when walking. the one near the top controls the skirt. It features several fabric previews. Clicking one of these previews instantly changes the color and/or fabric (i.e., texture) of my skirt. Here I am in all my fabulousness.

Two side-by-side copies of me in different colors of the skirt

There are a couple reasons why this development is worthy of comment. First, this paradigm does not match our real life mental models of clothes. If I want to change the color of my clothes, I have to change into other clothes. Historically, fashion designers in Second Life have sold multiple color variants of the same garment separately: buy this red shirt for 50 cents, blue for 50 cents, etc., or buy all six colors for $2 (in what’s called a “fat pack,” an unfortunate name for women’s clothing if I ever heard one). In your inventory, you would end up with 6 shirts in your inventory, and if you wanted to change them, you’d have to dig around your inventory and drag it onto your avatar, to replace the one you were wearing. Abstractly, this process mirrors real life, except that we use closets, not Windows-Explorer-like inventory systems, and our closets don’t (typically) have thousands of garments in them.

The second significance, related to the first, is that usability is transforming the way clothes are made, sold, stored, and worn/used. This system is, at least superficially, far more usable than the old way. Interaction design is asserting itself to replace the more literal translations of real-life to Second Life fashion that preceded it. I know in real-life wearable computing that some researchers are exploring fabrics that can change color, and one wonders if Second Life here is a prototype of future fashion.

Finally, I said “at least superficially” more usable in the previous paragraph, because as a user, I still have a concern about this strategy. The HUD only works for this skirt. I bought a pair of matching trimmed heels (pictured below; don’t hate me because I’m beautiful) from the same store display, and they came with their own HUD.

A close-up of my trimmed heel shoes.

If we extend this logic forward, for every multi-use garment we wear, we’ll have a separate HUD. And HUDs are as much of a pain to manage as garments, perhaps more so, because they are more abstract and interactive than clothes are. Thus, we could go from managing too many clothes to managing too many HUDs.

This HUD-based approach to handling clothing variation is an interesting development, because it has interesting implications for virtual fashion and real-life fashion and wearable computing in the future, but it can’t be the right answer. HUDs will have to become more flexible, more interoperable–in short, they’ll have to become clothing management applications–if they are truly to get the job done.


  1. jimmypierce

    im commenting on this post only because i promised jeff i would since i published right over him in Interaction Culture and he yelled at me…that and his post has pretty pictures.

    From the little I know about secondlife fashion (all via jeffrey bardzell) I am struck by the technical features of the fashion (which jeff brought to my attention), which seems to differ so much from first world fashion (does anybody talk about technical features in the phsyical world of high fashion?).

    although it really shouldnt come as a surprise…most things that end up online and onscreen end up becoming automated and programmable, right? But, is this a result of the properties of new media or of an established computer culture that prefers programmability. Certainly, it’s not a clearcut binary choice, but is it possible to say that either the computer level -or- the cultural level has more influence over new media objects?

    are there any properties of new media that we do not commonly see utilized? If so, wouldn’t this suggest that the computer level does not completely influence the cultural level? However, it seems like most of what we can do with new media, we do. Or maybe my cultural blinders are preventing me from seeing some important properties of new media. However, we do sometimes make very deliberate choices NOT to design some new media objects according to certain properties of new media. for example, we use copyright protection deliberately prevents altering and reproducing new media objects (using automation and variability, in manovich’s terms).

    Still, the fact the Second Life fashion designers used to sell separate shirt objects of different colors suggests to me that the properties of new media were responsible for this change within the culture of second life, i.e. new media influenced culture (will this trend continue??). as jeff points out, HUDs dont necessarily make it any easier to keep track of your clothes, require different mental model (albeit one many of us have gotten used to) and it also may not allow designers to profit more overall. however, it does seem much more NATURAL to sell a button which alters the color portion of the code, rather than to sell the same code with small changes multiple times. So, once somebody starts doing it, it may be difficult to stop. I’m going to guess that if we could simulate human involvement in second life, that is, simulate cultural development in second life, that each time we ran the simulation we’d end up seeing something like HUDs where fashion evolves to involve automation and programmability, that is, culture conforms to properties of new media. (…what about an experiment to test that some aspects of culture are media-independent?) Because virtual worlds resemble the phsyical world in important ways (and differ in other important ways), Second LIfe certainly seems like an excellent place to perform ‘natural’ experiments to investigate the effects of new media on culture and vice versa. and also to prototype physical designs using new media. I should probably be playing around in second life more…


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