Dreams made real with engineering and design.
It started as a dream for alumna Saura Naderi ’07. A self-described lonely and awkward kid, she would often imagine herself walking down her high school hallway in a billowy, slow-moving dress that undulated from below with tentacles like Medusa’s hair. It may look a bit bizarre, ominous even, but then its tendrils would reach out… searching for someone to hug.
“I might look like this dark, mysterious woman when the dress isn’t activated, but I’m not. I wanted the dress to have a magical, impressive moment,” she says.
This dream of such a dress stayed with Naderi through community college and then UC San Diego, and finally in the position she landed at the tech company Qualcomm in 2013, where she led engineering and design outreach as co-founder of its Thinkabit Lab. This was where she pitched the idea of using robotics to make a dress come to life, and recruited a group of engineers, software developers, and coders to help.
They could certainly help with the robot part, but not so much the dress. So Naderi returned to her alma mater and sought out the UC San Diego costume design program. With the help of graduate student Jaymee Ngernwichit ’11, MFA ’17, then a student of professor Judy Dolan, along with the seamstresses who make up UC San Diego’s costume shop, Naderi was aided in bringing this dress out of her imagination and into the world.
“I worked on the dress, or the skin, you could say. The engineers then were responsible for the skeleton and the programming for how it works together,” says Ngernwichit. “We had very pragmatic things to keep in mind, especially the limitations of fabric so that it wouldn’t get caught in the mechanics of the gears, which was a high possibility because of the complex movements we hoped to achieve.”
This team of engineers and costume designers were working against a deadline as well, hoping to debut the dress in time for the FIRST Robotics Conference, which emphasizes youth involvement in engineering. The year’s theme was Steampunk, an aesthetic inspired by the combination of technology and the Victorian era. Naderi planned to unveil the robotic dress onstage to an audience of 40,000, as well as entice visitors to the Qualcomm booth.
“I wanted us to create something that would open up people’s imaginations about what they can apply engineering toward,” says Naderi.
For instance, one may not imagine making what Naderi calls a “smart crinoline,” or traditionally stiffened petticoats designed to make dresses extra puffy. Naderi’s, however, could be manipulated by four 3-D printed robotic tentacles programmed together to move in fluid motions. Controlled by a remote and a hard-wired tech board on her belt, the tentacles move in seemingly autonomous swells that reveal the dress’s more subtle design details, landed upon through the team’s collaboration.
Naderi initially drew her own mockup of the dress in black and gold. Ngernwichit wanted to push the envelope further and encouraged Naderi to go out of her comfort zone and into more vibrant colors—violet, orange, and teal—that would each be uncovered in layers as the dress moved, almost as if revealing new aspects of personality the deeper one goes.
The similarities that arose between the costume shop and an engineer’s workspace were striking. Both started with research and brainstorming; they identified variables and challenges and made prototypes to see how their ideas would fare in physical form. It was also quite apparent how each space could be equally cluttered with specialized equipment—all a part of creation, be it in tech or textile.
The robotic dress was a hit on the conference stage, but what really made it worthwhile were the young kids who talked to Naderi with wonder in their eyes. “This dress shows that there are no rules,” she says, “just the limits of your imagination. It’s important for people to see this, to see what’s possible in engineering—what they can contribute.”
Ngernwichit was equally thrilled to have brought the impact beyond one single garment. “We all worked to create something that could inspire young people to take control,” she says, “be it in science and engineering or fashion, or maybe where those two combine, you can create something amazing.”