WoW Woman in Wearable Tech | Rain Ashford, wearable tech creator, inventor and mentor

Interview by Marija Butkovic (@MarijaButkovic)

Since 2008, Rain’s passion has been the design and construction of wearable technology, primarily for use in social situations. The artifacts she creates are a fusion of programming, hardware and aesthetic design. Through her research and prototypes she is investigating the possibility that wearable technology can be used to create new forms of non-verbal communication, particularly in the areas of body language and emotion, by the amplification and visualising of physiological data. She presents and exhibits her work internationally, most recently in Amsterdam, Heidelberg, Zurich, Geneva (CERN), London, New York, Seattle and Osaka. In October 2015, Rain was a finalist in Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s UK ICT Pioneers Competition. Her ThinkerBelle EEG Amplifying Dress was featured in Adafruit’s My Top Five Almost Famous Wearables for 2015 and her Baroesque Barometric Skirt was featured in the September 2014, New Scientist Magazine.

What is the idea behind your project / product and how did you come up with it? When did all start and do you have other members in your team?

My practice and research looks at emotive wearables – I’m interested in how visualising physiological data associated with emotion and moods can impact on social interaction. I began experimenting with physiological and environmental sensors and embedding them into wearables in 2008, initially looking at how we define social space. I’m also investigating who the potential wearers are of this technology, through aesthetics, functionality, personalisation and the bespoke. Up to now I have been designing and building emotive wearables on my own, but have recently been discussing collaborations.

How long did it take you to be where you are now?

Although I’ve been designing and building wearables for 9 years I still feel I’m at the very beginning of my career. I’ve a long list of ideas to build and realise, in my to do list, informed by my research.

What was the biggest obstacle?

My biggest obstacle is time. Researching and creating complex wearable systems can be a slow process on one’s own. For example, building each element of the project: the hardware, code and enclosure or garment, and then to get it working as a whole. A typical project starts with working out what I want to create and then researching how it might work. This then needs to be mocked up to see if the initial idea will actually do what I want it to in terms of hardware and code. At the same time I’m trying to fashion the garment, accessory or enclosure that I’m going to embed it in and thinking about aesthetics. This doesn’t always come together as I initially expect, for example, sometimes the technology or code doesn’t work as I want it to and I’ll have to make compromises or go back to the drawing board and rethink my project!

What are the challenges of being an entrepreneur in the niche you are in? How about being a female technologist?

I’m not an entrepreneur yet! I’m currently studying, writing and plotting my next wearables. I’ve been working in technology for a number of years, so boring challenges I’ve come up against include being taken seriously as a female engineer and keeping my patience when being mansplained at.

What are your biggest achievements to date?

Being a finalist in the ESPRC UK ICT Pioneers competition alongside some of the most amazing PhD students in the country. Honoured by invitations to present/exhibit my work around the world, for example, having my work selected 5 years in a row to exhibit at the Design Exhibition of the International Symposium on Wearable Computers. Creating a reactive e-textiles controller for an interactive game about dark matter at CERN was an experience I will cherish. I was also very excited to see my work featured in New Scientist magazine.

What are projects you are currently working on within your company?

One of my current wearables projects involves AI and sound.

What will be the key trends in the wearable tech and fashion tech industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?

That depends on the success of current wearables, but I think people want to know more about themselves. I hope we’ll see more reliable research into physiological data and emotion. Also, more intuitive interfaces, ultra-personalisation and bespoke options, plus hopefully better privacy models.

Is #WomenInTech movement important to you and if yes, why?

Yes, because I want to see more opportunities for women in tech and less of seeing women treated as a novelty within the industry.

What is the most important piece of advice you can give to all female founders and female entrepreneurs out there?

Do your own thing. Research everything. Work hard. Don’t be put down. Don’t give up.

Who are your 3 inspirational women in wearable tech and / or fashion tech?

This is really difficult as there are so many I respect for various reasons, so I can only get it down to 5!

Leah Buechley – inventor of the LilyPad Arduino and tech educator

Limor Fried – founder of Adafruit, developer of many components for wearables such as FloraTrinket and Gemma microcontrollers, and supporter of technology for all      

Marina Toeters – founder of by-wire.net

FashTech innovator Anouk Wipprecht – wearables techtress

Iris van Herpen – visionary in materials + fashion

Blog: https://rainycatz.wordpress.com/
Twitter: @rainycat
Linkedin: Rain Ashford
Youtube: Rainycat

This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, co-founder of Women of Wearables and Kisha Smart Umbrella. She regularly writes and speaks on topics of wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT, entrepreneurship and diversity. Visit marijabutkovic.co.uk or follow Marija on Twitter @MarijaButkovic @Women_Wearables @GetKisha.