Fashion Week: Zipperbot Hits The Runway

Removing myself from city life last week, I couldn’t help notice inefficiencies that have yet to be solved by technology.  For example, United Airlines’ inability to deliver my luggage to my destination on time. Watching my wife encounter the same frustration, I had an epiphany,  women are unbelievably more patient than men with life’s hiccups.

Women encounter the biggest inefficiently almost on a daily basis, the zippers on the back of their dresses.  Contorted and frustrated, my wife constantly begs me to lend a helping hand.  Adam Whiton of MIT must have come to a similar conclusion as part of his aptly-named Sartorial Robotics Thesis, “Zipperbot.”

In an email to Mashable, Whiton says, “fashion is a form of play with our identities and it will be important for robots/machines to have an understanding of that.”


Whiton, who just received his Ph.D from MIT’s Personal Robots group, is so convinced in the future of sartorial robotics that he founded a company (Betazip LLC) dedicated to the area. Its first product is, naturally, Zipperbot.

The robot, by the way, does far more than just zip up your jacket. It uses optical sensors to properly mesh the zipper teeth and motion sensors to zip and unzip at the right time. In one test, Whiton put Zipperbot in a form-fitting hobble skirt. When the hobble skirt-wearer began to walk, Zipperbot detected the motion and slightly unzipped to make it easier for the hobble skirt-wearer to move.

Originally working as a researcher focused on robot skin, Whiton soon switched to clothing and intelligent fabrics for wearables. Eventually, he turned to fashion.

“As robots become more and more sophisticated and work more closely with people, robots will need to understand social signaling which of course includes understanding fashion and sartorial cues,” says Whiton.

Along with the Zipperbot, Whiton also built a computer vision system that analyzes a person’s preferred color palettes based on the clothes they’re wearing. It can then suggest new patterns and colors based on that palette analysis.  This offers an entirely new category of wearable technology and sensors to provide smart clothes and accessories.

For Whiton, fashion is more than just about looking good, it may be the key to harmonious robot-human interaction. “[Robots] should understand simple differences like formal business attire versus casual in order to give context to an interaction or something more complex like the act of loosening a tie, which might indicate relaxation.”

Zipperbot 2

It’ll be a while before a robot quotes Billy Crystal’s charac you Fernando, to say  “you look marvelous.”  In the meantime, Whiton thinks Zipperbot could start a trend in “assistive clothing” and help people with disabilities dress themselves and be useful in situations where touching any part of clothing (for example, chemical and biohazard suits) could be detrimental to one’s health.

Whiton proves once again that creativity is THE killer app, now if he can just help those drones in Denver find my lost suitcase…

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