This mechanical spider-dress reacts to your emotions

This article is part of a collaboration with iQ by Intel.

So much for a pincushion and a pair of dressmaker’s shears. The Dutch fashionista Anouk Wipprecht designs robotic evening wear that gives a technophilic twist to the world of catwalks and haute couture. Unique, stunning, and often startling, her futuristic garments range from halter tops that emit plumes of smoke to metal-plated mail that attracts Tesla coil discharge. In a day and age where the trend in wearable tech is to make it invisible, she puts the internal computations on center stage with purple bolts of electricity zapping out.

Generally seen on the bodies of tall sinewy models, Anouk’s work sits at the intersection of fashion and wearables. It bumps shoulders with plenty of other disciplines as well—in particular, videogames. Once you put clothing with feedback sensors on your body, something as simple as wearing a flannel shirt becomes an exercise in onboard interface. More specifically, her creations “use a lot of animalistic features that people can relate to. If your dress purrs, you could feel emphatic. If your dress attacks, you know you have gotten too close,” Wipprecht says.

Her SpiderDress, now in version 2.0, is of the attacking variety. It is sort of an angelic corset that fends off uninvited guests who intrude on your personal space. True to its name, the outfit features six creepy-crawly mechanical arms. They are actually inspired by the infamous spider sequence in the puzzle-platforming game Limbo, where a menacing set of spider legs tries its hardest to, in her words, “dismantle the player by pinching straight through their [character’s] body.” The game-over screen when this thing kills you is every bit as ghastly as her description, too.

Unlike those lethal legs, SpiderDress will not leave a dead body on the barstool next to you, because that would be murder. It does, however, take cues from Limbo’s spirit of play. “I believe that a mind learns the most when playfulness is being provoked,” she tells me, explaining how her designs egg on mischievous exchanges between strangers, acquaintances, and close friends alike. A good example is her fashion piece Synapse, a dress that has super-villain shoulder guards and a cocoon-like chest plate or “shield” that pulses with indigo light. The dress relies on a headpiece exchanging signals with an Intel-Edison module to read its wearer’s biorhythms. With this data it knows which people the wearer likes and dislikes. It can lure a standoffish visitor closer with an inviting twinkle, and its light system also knows to blind a close-talker with a 120-watt flash.

Much of Wipprecht’s art has to do with the theme of physical space between people, or other people’s territory, as she puts it. The “dangerous and pointy” appearance of her dresses, for instance, heightens the “psychological thrill” of social interactions, but a large part of the experience is personal, too. She alludes to the intimate feeling of hearing the raw sound of little motors spin, or seeing the light frequencies flicker in a pattern when you feel, say, aroused. “I like the notion that my systems are protective, that they empower the wearer, but they also question the entity they are hosted on,” she tells me. “When you wear a design that you are partly in control of and that partly controls you—or that is partly controlled by your surroundings and partly controlled by your subconscious,” she clarifies, “you start to question where you end and my system begins.”

You are handing over your inner thoughts to a pair of robot-spider appendages. 

In that light, strapping into one of Wipprecht’s systems sounds a little—okay, a lot—intimidating. After all, you are handing over your inner thoughts and feelings to a pair of creepy robot-spider appendages that can and will lash out at those in your vicinity, depending on your stress amounts. What’s more, with the ability to read bio-signals such as heartbeat, brain activity, and distraction levels, the Synapse “sometimes knows you better than you know yourself,” she says.

There’s no getting around it. Your emotional states are decoded into a sequence of flashing lights for the whole world to see. With that in mind, it seems Wipprecht’s projects externalize not only the processes of machines, but also the functions of a living human brain, whether you like it or not. “All my designs challenge the ways we interact with one another,” she tells me. In a way, that is what makes them so fun and enlightening.