Interview by Marija Butkovic (@MarijaButkovic)
Martha L. Hall is the Fashion Designer and Wearable Technology Researcher for the Move To Learn Innovation Lab, located in the department of Physical Therapy at the University of Delaware, USA. Martha has Bachelors and Masters degrees in fashion design and has worked in industry as a childrenswear designer and patternmaker. Martha’s design and construction expertise has been central to the Move To Learn Super Suits program: FUNctional fashion and wearable technology to improve the lives of children with disabilities. Her research includes integrating technology with apparel, specifically through (1) functional co-design: creating usercentered expressive garments with embedded assistive devices that combine “fun & function” for users and (2) wearable technology: creating garments with integrated technology to track, support, and assist mobility, improve overall health, and quality of life.
What does your current job role entail? What projects are you working on at the moment?
I am currently a PhD student at the University of Delaware studying Biomechanics and Movement Science. I conduct research at the Move To Learn Innovation Lab, focusing on wearable technology and functional design for individuals with disabilities. My current role entails working on my degree as well as working on multiple exciting and high impact projects. Our team is just completing a National Institute of Health funded project targeted to help young children with upper extremity impairment. Several of the children we work with have a diagnosis called Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita (AMC), which means they have arm weakness, and often cannot lift their arms at all. These kids can't move, play, and explore their world like other kids. We designed a soft exoskeleton embedded in a childrenswear style garment that supports and lifts the child's arms. The mechanism is really springy, so it provides both support and resistance for rehab use. We've been so proud of that project. There's just not many options available and many kids in need.
Other projects include wearable technology integrated into running apparel to measure motion and another with wearable tech in activewear to measure physical activity. I'm collaborating on a project to create new textile-based sensors that will make motion capture for biomechanics easier and more user-friendly. I'm very lucky to work with an amazing team of people - we are always ideating and innovating new design solutions that can really help people and hopefully improve lives.
How has your career progressed since your degree? Has it been an easy industry to get into or have you had many challenges?
Well, since I'm still in school I haven't faced this challenge yet, but I plan to graduate next year! I am really excited about this next step, well leap really, into the unknown. Whether I stay in academia or go into industry, I am excited to continue to focus on smart garment solutions for real world health problems. There are so many people that can be helped through design research and I am hopeful that I can keep making a difference.
How long did it take you to be where you are now? What was the biggest obstacle?
It took quite some time to get where I am today, mainly because to be successful, someone in my position needs quite of bit of training and knowledge. I think I am helpful to my team because I've trained extensively in apparel design, patternmaking, and construction, I'm well-versed in material science and practical textile application, and I know electronics & coding. Right now, I'm learning more about working in science, physical therapy, working with people, identifying problems, and user-centered research. That all takes time and it takes an interdisciplinary approach to learning. You have to get outside your comfort zone and look to other areas. Figure out what you need to know and how to learn it. I've learned so much from people who are from very different fields and have a completely different mindset from mine. I think it has been a challenge, but it has been the key to any success I can claim.
In your opinion, what will be the key trends in the wearable tech and digital health industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
To me, the key trends in wearable tech will be ubiquity and improving aesthetics. Wearable tech will be something consumers expect, rather than the bracelet-based or novelty use we see today. The Fitbit, Apple watch, and smaller markets like club wear and workout gear are really where we see wearable tech being consumed today. In 5 years time, smart clothing will be more common and just another added feature to a given product. What I would like to see happen and what I feel is the critical design challenge today, is aesthetic and user-friendly integration of electronic components. We are getting smaller with devices, but they are still clipped on or applied to existing clothing. We need to may the jump into fully integrated wearables, something like Google's Project Jacquard, that is functional, useful, and aesthetically pleasing.
Who are your 3 inspirational women in wearable tech and digital health?
I am continuously inspired by Mika Satomi and Hannah Perner-Wilson. These are the women behind the website KOBAKANT. They provide extensive wearable tech tutorials on their site and their humor, generosity, and creativity always keeps me reading and tinkering! Sabine Seymour is also a total rockstar.
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.