Tech+Art Podcast: Lee Jones


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Welcome to the new Tech+Art Podcast!

Join us on this adventure as we meet & speak with: artists, makers, researchers, designers and creators from all background and fields.

Our objective is to understand their creative perspective, dive into their workflow & creative process, be inspired by new ideas and their work – and stay one step ahead of cutting-edge industry developments.

" I think that by building these types of toolkits, where people can get more creative, make things that are more unique..."


In this episode, we’re chatting with Lee Jones, a researcher at Carleton University’s Creative Interactions Lab.

Lee is pursuing her PhD there and exploring topics related to wearables, e-textiles and co-design. She’s also a prolific creator and routinely delivers workshops around her work for the public.

Lee has created easy-to-use, e-textile prototyping kits for one of these workshops called ElectroStitches.

She’s also been a fellow at Open Style Lab in NYC & is currently doing a virtual artist-in-residency with Daimon.

Question 1: Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself and what set you off on the journey that you’re on?

[ 2:01 ] – […] in second year, I had this really, really cool class called “Art and Technology”. And the best part about it was suddenly, all the artists were still alive. So in all the other courses, like renaissance art history and stuff like that, we were talking about people who had passed, but with Art & Technology you could email these people and sometimes they’d respond. […] And with that, the artwork just felt so relevant to the world we were living in.

[ 2:47 ] – […] and I found this awesome program, after my undergrad, called “Digital Futures” at OCAD. And it’s this really unique and interesting program because it’s a technology program that’s made for artists. So usually when you go into a tech program, they’re expecting some kind of level of background in that field – especially at the graduate level. But with this one, it was made for people who are artists and had undergrads in art. So they really went from the beginning and taught us all the intro steps, and then we were able to do lots of cool stuff with very little tech.

Question 2: So what really drove you into this area? What was it about textiles that really fascinated you?

[ 4:04 ] – I feel like it’s so unexpected. Like it sounds very science-fiction-y. And the idea that electronics can be soft. Most people learn about electronics by using hard components. And most electronics are hard components. And so we end up often building around that factor. Because these components are hard, we make hard accessories. Like if you think about wearables in particular, a lot of wearables that are out there are accessories that are hard: wristbands, clasps, things like that that you can add-on that are physically hard. But with e-textiles, you can make things that are soft. And if you think about where textiles are, they’re like everywhere. Inside our home. It’s not just clothes. It’s like all our furniture, inside your car….

[ 4:50 ] – I think it’s also a nice way to incorporate technology – it doesn’t feel like technology. For example, if I had technology in my clothes, it would still feel like clothes; it wouldn’t feel like technology. And I think that’s really exciting to be able to incorporate technology into these unexpected areas.

Question 3: Can you share a little bit more about how the Digital Futures program was really tailored towards artists instead of developers? And what the outcome of that was in your experience?

[ 5:41 ] – […] Whereas artists usually want to get things visual or auditory – whatever their creative expression is – right away. So they tend to use different tools. So for example, we used a lot of Processing at first, and then got into some other languages afterwards. We did a lot of physical computing, which is usually something that happens maybe in the later years for a lot of computing students. It was just the way that they taught it so that we could get a lot of results right away and get really excited about it and see the potential for artwork was there. The teaching style is very different, but it was a good fit.

Question 4: So today you’re part of the Creative Interactions Lab at Carleton University. What type of work and challenges do you focus on there?

[ 6:20 ] – So we focus on a lot of physical computing. So things that are in your environment rather than looking at a screen. So for me, I’m really focusing on toolkits so that people can build their own technologies. I’m particularly focusing on wearable e-textiles. So e-textiles is essentially what it sounds like – electronic textiles. So it’s the fact that we can now weave conductive materials into our clothes. And it’s much more realistic nowadays too. It feels like actual fabric. It doesn’t feel like you have a bunch of wires plugged into your clothing. And also these things are becoming more washable and like things that you could actually wear and live with.

[ 6:58 ] – But the big question is: ‘what do people want’? And so that’s what I’m exploring with my thesis, is I’m building a toolkit that hopefully anyone can build a prototype of a wearable e-textile and we’re calling it WearableBits because it’s essentially these little textile puzzle pieces that you can connect together and make whatever. So we’ve had people make shirts, pants, t-shirts, jackets, capes, hats…. Shoes were a little bit tricky.

Question 5: Where did the idea for a toolkit come from and how long have you been working on that?

[ 7:36 ] – It’s a field called Tangible User Interfaces, which is essentially any kind of technology that you can touch. It’s in your environment and you can play around with it in your hands. So the idea of a toolkit that’s a very common thing in that field – because basically it’s like people playing with things like Lego. We try to make toolkits that are kind of like Lego, where you can plug things together and build your own thing. Take it apart and put it back together again. So that’s where I was thinking about how could we do wearables like that?

[ 8:18 ] – But for people who have no background in sewing or electronics – this is very difficult to get into because it’s just a combination of so many different fields: you have to know how to code, you have to know how to sew and put clothes together, you have to to like do the electronics part of it. So we want to be able make that really easy. Just be able to plug it together, built whatever you want, and then try it on!

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Question 6: You’ve also got another series of workshops called Electro-Stitches. Can you tell us more about that?

[ 11:25 ] – Ya so Electro-Stitches is all about combining craft with electronics. So it’s really useful for artists too, to get into electronics by doing handcrafts because it’s something that they usually do anyways. So like if you’re a woodworker, how can you incorporate electronics into your work? Or for me, e-textiles, how can I sew electronics in? And the cool thing about the way that these workshops are done, it focuses on the raw materials so that you can build your own components.

Question 7: So when you deliver these workshops and think about improving your toolkits for approachability, what thinking do you do through about those experiences as products and helping people achieve their ideas?

[ 13:15 ] – So it’s cool when things aren’t a blackbox. Like a lot of technology, you don’t see what’s going on inside. You just use it, you know how it works, but you don’t know what’s going on under the hood. And then with a lot of Electro-Stitches stuff and also with my own thesis toolkit, people can still see all the circuits – and they are very visual because it’s been sewn into something. You can actually see: ‘oh, a button is when two conductive pieces come together’. So I think it’s an easier way to understand what’s going on underneath.

Question 8: Based on your experience in this space, what do you think is missing or what do you wish existed or that people were more aware of?

[ 14:07 ] – I think there’s a huge focus on optimization instead of creativity. So because I work in wearables, that’s just what I know. But all the wearables out there are so boring. They’re so boring. They’re all about trying to self-improve, trying to make you fit, trying to make you optimally productive. And people are not using them as much, either. A lot of people will buy a wearable – I know I did, I’ve gone through several wearables – and then they use it for a little bit, it’s new, it’s fun and then they drop it.

[ 14:51 ] – But I think that by building these types of toolkits, where people can get more creative, make things that are more unique, they’ll actually make things for themselves and their own unique circumstances and will get things that are really fun. […] So people will make things that are more whimsical and more creative I think if we open it up away from just optimization.

Question 9: You mentioned really briefly about “augmenting” the fabrics and clothes that we’re already familiar with. Do you see textiles as the physical version or equivalents of some of these new emerging technologies - where instead of overlaying graphics and new experiences, we’re weaving tech into our clothes - and other objects that we’re already very familiar with. So are you seeing any privacy concerns emerging from this space or not yet?

[ 18:36 ] – I think that’s gonna be the interesting question, like ‘how much data do we want to be giving these devices?’ But I think that’s also connected with our focus on optimization. Like we’re making wearables to gather data about our bodies and to like make actionable behaviours based on this. I think if we’re making wearables that are just like responding to us and not necessarily gathering data, that could also be interesting.

Question 10: What advice would you share with a younger version of yourself?

[ 24:49 ] – Break technology. I wish I had been one of those people that takes things apart as a kid… I know that’s very discouraged – usually. You don’t want to break things. But that’s what I do all the time now. […] And I think that’s just such a great way to learn about what’s going on under the hood.