Interview by Marija Butkovic @MarijaButkovic
Emilie Giles is an researcher, artist and educator, based in London. Her work spans creative technology, crafting and pervasive gaming. She is a Ph.D. student at The Open University exploring how e-textiles can be used as interactive tools for blind and visually impaired people, using participatory design approaches.
Emilie has much experience in teaching people how to build their own creative technology projects, having been Co-director and Head of Outreach and Participation at Codasign for over three years, and has taught physical computing with e-textiles to students at University of Westminster, London College of Communication and The Royal College of Art as well as to members of the public in museums such as the V&A and Tate Britain.
What does your current job role entail? What projects are you working on at the moment?
At the moment I’m studying for a PhD in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) at The Open University. My research involves running hands-on making workshops with people who are blind and visually impaired, using electronic textiles (e-textiles). This is in collaboration with my supervisors, Prof. Janet van der Linden and Prof. Marian Petre. Our participants have been making objects which are very personal to them, based on memories, personal experiences and stories. The objects are all interactive and are tactile, created from e-textiles, many different non-conductive textiles, crafting methods and small sound boards. We have been exploring what associations the participants make with the materials that they are working with, based on touch but actually also on the visual too as they all have different levels of sight.
I also do freelance work as an artist, my work being very outreach based, working with people to explore how to use technology in a creative, often DIY, way. It is quite similar to my PhD research, my focuses being e-textiles linked with oral history and personal stories and experimenting with soft materials.
How has your career progressed since your degree? Has it been an easy industry to get into or have you had many challenges?
My career has been quite random I have to say :) My BA was in Contemporary Media Practice from the School of Media, Arts and Design at University of Westminster and my MA was in Interactive Media: Critical Theory and Practice from the former Centre for Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London. I am now in Computing and Communications for my PhD so it just shows how you can meander between disciplines!
I think that the very nature of media and digital arts practices is that they are diverse as disciplines, so the jump from being more arts based to HCI came quite naturally for me. For many years I’ve been working with people using technology in creative ways (I used to teach for Technology Will Save Us, was part of MzTEK and co-ran Codasign) so I always wanted to do a PhD exploring this further.
I would say that getting involved with DIY technology, e-textiles and the maker movement is to necessarily a difficult area to get into, but making a career out of it is! Running public workshops can be very demanding and the budgets just aren’t always there for it to be a consistent income. I think it took me years to realise what I wanted to do but have decided that's ok! I’ve also done jobs since my BA which weren’t for me: in advertising, working in administrative roles for big companies but also in the public sector and also working as a project manager. I love working with members of the public of all ages and abilities and teaching them to build things, both in a research context and an arts context - sometimes it takes you a while to find your niche ;)
How long did it take you to be where you are now? What was the biggest obstacle?
Wow - well, technically approximately 10 years I guess. I think the main obstacle for me has been confidence actually, I probably would have loved to have been running my own artist workshops from my mid-twenties but just didn’t think I had the ability to do it. Same goes with studying for my PhD. We all grow in our abilities and self esteem at different times though and all experiences contribute to that. Joining Codasign and working with my PhD supervisor, Janet, definitely grew my confidence which I’m very grateful for. The people we are surrounded by are amazing in that they can really help to shape us - I feel very lucky to have had lots of lovely collaborators who have helped me see that I can achieve things :)
What are your biggest achievements to date?
Co-running a business
Getting onto a funded PhD programme
Being invited as an artist to collaborate with institutions and galleries such as The Wellcome Trust and The V&A to run workshops and give talks - it’s lovely to get invited to work on such things and to be recognised in that way.
What does the #WomenInTech movement mean to you? What are the challenges of being a woman in wearable tech / smart textiles?
It’s a movement which I’m very proud to be part of as there is so much support in it, with everyone recommending each other and offering kindness and ideas. I’m very lucky in that I’m part of a lovely network of people from my MA course, across different cohorts and with people from all backgrounds and genders involved. With regards to e-textiles, this is where I mainly work with, or have contacts, that are women. One of the challenges is possibly diversifying and getting people from other backgrounds involved. For example I’m situated in HCI right now and I would say e-textiles as a medium is less explored in this area. E-textiles is more common in engineering, fashion or design. How do we encourage more people to research it as an area, or practice in it from a more human-centered approach?
In your opinion, what will be the key trends in the wearable tech and smart textiles industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
Industrialising and scaling up is a big thing, with regards to how can we actually get smart textile garments onto the market and have them as something which is accessible for everyone to buy. The Google Jacquard/ Levi Commuter jacket has been cool in that it is one of the examples towards it happening (although not everyone can afford $350) - I’m sure soon we’ll see e-textile garments more and more!
With regards to my area, which is e-textiles and maker culture, I would like to see more activities and workshops available for mixed ability groups - making which doesn’t just rely on fiddly sewing and visual outputs. E-textiles is often so much about the visual, but there are other sensory elements which are just as worthy such as sound and haptics that can be used with it as a medium. Tactile making such as weaving and wet felting can also come into it - let’s see what happens!
Who are your 3 inspirational women in wearable tech and smart textiles?
Can I have a few please? :)
- Kobakant (Mika Satomi and Hannah Perner-Wilson) have inspired all of us in the field I think with their openness and brilliant designs/ideas. I don’t think e-textiles would be what it is if it wasn’t for them.
- Becky Stewart - she is a good friend of mine but has also been a professional inspiration too with her talent as a creative technologist but also her leadership and focus - she founded Codasign and now runs a research lab in wearable technology at Queen Mary, University of London.
- My supervisors have been a constant inspiration to me over the years, but I also love the research of Prof. Sarah Kettley, focussing on working with people with mental health issues, and Prof. Cathy Treadaway, working with people with dementia. To me this pushes the boundaries of how e-textiles can be used in different contexts, for more reflective and wellbeing purposes.
Twitter: Emilie Giles
LinkedIn: Emilie Giles
This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, founder and CEO 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.