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Diana Wagner on Bringing the Art and Function of Apparel Design to Wearable Robotics

The Humans of the Wyss (HOW) series features members of the Wyss community discussing their work, the influences that shape them as scientists, and their collaborations at the Wyss Institute and beyond. 

Diana Wagner thinks of her work in the lab as an art form – and she’s no stranger to the arts. After majoring in sculpture and extended media, Diana worked at a textile museum before getting a masters in industrial design from RISD and joining the Wyss. Now, when she’s not creating art in her studio practice, she’s a functional apparel designer working to perfect the textile-based actuators she developed for the soft robotic glove for neuromuscular rehabilitation at the Wyss. Learn more about Diana and her work in this month’s Humans of the Wyss.

Diana Wagner on Bringing the Art and Function of Apparel Design to Wearable Robotics

What are you working on?

I’m a functional apparel designer and I work on the soft robotic glove, which we now call our soft robotic glove for neuromuscular rehabilitation. When I first joined the project, we were transitioning from a fiber-reinforced actuator to a textile-based actuator. The actuators are what bend and extend the fingers. At the time, they were made of silicon and rubber, so they were heavy and stiff. We wanted them to be made from soft materials so they could be more lightweight and flexible, feeling more like a garment, but it was unclear if we could get the same function using textiles and air bladders. That’s where my skillset came in. I looked at what types of textiles could create those functions, and how they could be layered together and constructed to create the motions of bending and extending. I also work on designing the actuators to the right form factor to fit the hand, and how they could be sized to fit properly to fit each individual with the smallest amount of sizes.

Since my initial textile-based actuator design, the project has come a long way. We’re now focusing on helping people recover hand function after a stroke, hence the name “neuromuscular rehabilitation glove.” I’m still working on improving the textile-based actuator design, but I also work on the glove itself, ensuring that it fits and functions correctly. This involves researching materials, designing the device, physically making it, testing it with participants in the target population, and then revisiting that same process over and over again until it works as best as possible.

What real-world problem does this solve?

Some people will have the ability to regain hand function after a stroke through repetitive exercises, usually facilitated by a therapist. The problem is that with conventional therapy, they might only be seen once a week, and for a limited time depending on their insurance. The soft glove repeatedly moves their hand through the exercises that promote recovery without a therapist present. The device could be used in a patient’s home, allowing them to perform hundreds of repetitions throughout the day. Our aim is to create a device that is soft, comfortable, and easy to use so that patients will make it part of their routine.

Diana Wagner on Bringing the Art and Function of Apparel Design to Wearable Robotics
The Wyss Institute soft robotic neuromuscular rehabilitation glove gently bends and straightens the fingers, providing necessary stretches and repetitive exercise in order to restore lost hand function. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

We publicly premiered this iteration of the soft robotic glove at the American Conference for Rehabilitative Medicine (ACRM) last year and received extremely positive feedback. It showed us that we’re moving in a promising direction for how this device can have a positive impact on people’s daily lives. It’s great to see the development of our research.

What inspired you to get into this field?

When I was a graduate student at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) studying industrial design, I had the opportunity to join Conor Walsh’s lab as a research fellow. It was really early on in the group’s research on textile-based exosuits to support walking. It was a huge program and there was a lot of research from diverse fields going into making the system possible. But what the team lacked at the time was someone who could make the exosuits more garment-like and help them fit and function more like clothing. My experience in textiles and apparel design brought new perspectives to the project. That summer when I was a research fellow, I was able to apply my knowledge of materials, how to design for the body, as well as fit and comfort to help address the challenges of the wearable exosuit system. What came from that experience was a demonstrated need to add the field of functional apparel design to the lab. The unique opportunity to combine my skills in textiles, apparel, and industrial design while being the first to bring this new perspective to the Walsh lab inspired my career in this field.

What continues to motivate you?

There are two answers to this question. I really love the projects that we work on and having the opportunity to collaborate with people from such a variety of disciplines to solve problems. I’m inspired by the opportunity to trial our devices and test them on the intended populations and end users that will benefit from them.

When I started in the lab, it was just me and a folding table with a home sewing machine. Now we’re four staff and two research fellows with five industrial sewing machines.

Diana Wagner

From the functional apparel design perspective, I’m motivated by the fact that we’re continuing to grow as a team. When I started in the lab, it was just me and a folding table with a home sewing machine. Now we’re four staff and two research fellows with five industrial sewing machines. We all take on different projects and our physical resources have grown too. Establishing this competency within the lab has required brining in a lot of new resources. Over time, I’ve built relationships with vendors to source the types of materials we want to use that might be unique to apparel design but ideal for soft wearable robotics. I’ve created a material catalog to be able to keep track of all of the different types of textiles that we use or that could inspire us for new designs. We’ve cataloged over 400 textiles, fasteners, and trims here in the lab. Our contribution to this new field in the lab and to the evolving understanding of what a robotics engineering lab can be is very motivating.

What excites you most about your work?

The fact that I actually get to build my ideas is really exciting. I collaborate with my teammates during the ideation process – understanding the challenge, what needs to be created, and what it should look like – but then we actually get to build it. I select the materials, understand how they work together, design the methods by which they’re constructed and fabricated, and then make it. We have to experiment with all the different versions that are made and that’s really exciting and fun. We’re not just thinking about it and proposing what could be done. We actually have to demonstrate our proof of concept.

Also, something very exciting that happened during my time at the Wyss was that from May 2019 to January 2020, the soft robotic glove was featured in Nature – Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial in New York City and the Netherlands. This exhibition showcased ground-breaking advances in science and technology and seeing our glove among international research and other Wyss technologies was really exciting and helped shine a light on the potential of the glove. Our installation included an interactive demo, touch sample, and video produced by the National Science Foundation. Exhibiting there was a dream come true.

What are some of the challenges that you face?

We create inherently complex devices that require a lot of different skill sets. Specific to functional apparel design, one challenge is that it’s not always clear how our concepts and prototypes will translate to manufacturing. Throughout the design process, we have to develop these ideas so that they can scale. Also, we always have to be focused on the usability of the device. Is it simple enough for somebody to use? Will they want to use it? So, it’s not just if we can solve this problem, which is already an immense challenge, but it’s can we solve this problem in a way that somebody will choose to adopt. I think the challenges are great but they’re as exciting as the work itself.

How have your previous work and personal experiences shaped your approach to your work today?

I studied sculpture and extended media as an undergraduate student, which was very hands-on. I learned to work with lots of materials like wood, metal, ceramic, glass, silicone, plaster, and textiles, which I think is really critical to the work that I do today. Understanding different types of materials and how they come together, whether it is with a machine or by hand with tools, has really informed the type of work I do. After getting that degree and before going to RISD for industrial design, I worked in a textile museum, so that gave me more experience with garments.

I studied art because I wanted to explore interesting ideas. I wanted to make things and to execute my ideas by creating physical objects. When I discovered industrial design something really clicked. I realized I could explore interesting ideas and make things, but those objects could also help people.

Diana Wagner

I studied art because I wanted to explore interesting ideas. I wanted to make things and execute my ideas by creating physical objects. When I discovered industrial design something really clicked. I realized I could explore interesting ideas and make things, but those objects could also help people. They’re not just ideas that I have and want to execute, they’re ideas with a purpose that can be really meaningful to someone.

What do you like to do outside of work?

Diana Wagner on Bringing the Art and Function of Apparel Design to Wearable Robotics
Diana Wagner weaving a Shaker-style basket using black ash splint over a wooden mold in a class taught by Jo Ann Kelly Catsos. Credit: Diana Wagner

I have a studio practice outside the lab, so I make a lot of art and objects. To support that practice, I take a lot of classes locally, nationally, and internationally with master artisans. I’m looking to learn what I call endangered hand skills. These are skills like basket weaving, tatting, and shoemaking that have very interesting histories and intricate methods that are different from methods that have been translated to industry and will be forgotten if they aren’t passed down from person to person.

It’s fun to see parallels between what I learn in these classes and my work here at the Wyss. For example, in the method of basket-weaving that I’m currently learning, you have to weave around a form. When I’m creating actuators there’s a lot of thinking about how the textile is three-dimensionally creating a form and a volume to hold air, just like in this method of weaving. It’s really interesting to me because that particular method of weaving isn’t something that exists commonly in industry. It’s cool to see how the same ideas can be executed in entirely different materials, and that can act as a source of inspiration.

If you had to choose an entirely different career path what would it be?

I essentially created my dream job at the Wyss by helping to establish functional apparel design as an integral part of an already well-established robotics lab. I think of myself as an artist and a designer, but when I think of the work I do in the lab, I believe that it is an art form, because it exercises the same skills. The work I do in the lab is inherently creative and that’s what is important to me in terms of my career.

What does it feel like to be working on cutting-edge technology that has the potential to have a real and significant impact on people’s lives and society?

We are creating cutting-edge technology that will impact a real person’s life, but the fact that we’re involving that real person in the process in order to help them takes it a step further. That’s something truly amazing.

Diana Wagner

When designing these technologies, we are working with people to understand what their needs are and we’re trying to create something that will help them and that they’ll want to use. That’s exciting, but it’s also very challenging. I love that it’s an iterative process. Good ideas require a lot of variations and a lot of input from others. We are creating cutting-edge technology that will impact a real person’s life, but the fact that we’re involving that real person in the process in order to help them takes it a step further. That’s something truly amazing.

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