By Rachael Buselmeier The backpack has served as a humble companion about as long as humans have needed to lug stuff from point A to B. A group of Western students are rethinking the limitations of the backpack in an installation currently on display in the Western Gallery. The backpacks are part of a larger exhibit called Coded Threads: Textile and Technology, which is running until Dec. 8. Although the backpacks all have two straps, their conventionality ends there. Students were asked to incorporate pieces of technology into their designs, in order to solve a problem tailored to their demographic’s specific needs. After researching, students created physical prototypes of their designs utilizing sewing and pattern making skills. Each class was given two to three weeks to complete the project. Some students were able to choose the problem they solved, others were randomly assigned. Junior Annie Payne, whose backpack uses virtual reality technology, said she was nervous when she was first instructed to design for a professional gamer. “A big part of design is you’re not designing for yourself 99 percent of the time. You need to be able to get into another person’s head,” Payne said. While Payne originally started designing a bag for a laptop, a conversation about wanting to design a bag that does more than just hold a laptop and headphones pushed her to design for gamers of the future. Through research, Payne found improvements in graphic cards will make VR increasingly advanced. She also noted the popularity of augmented reality games like Pokemon Go. After completing her research, Payne wanted to develop a backpack that would improve a VR gamer’s experience. “Most VR sets come with a lot of gear; it’s a very stationary thing,” Payne said. She streamlined the design by replacing a helmet with a hood. “People already know what having a hood is like, so it brings some realism to the game,” Payne said. The idea behind Payne’s backpack is a user could wear a transparent screen as part of the hood. The gamer could see their surroundings while also receiving graphics integrated into their environment. The “VR Hood” backpack would seamlessly combine gameplay and reality. An important part of Payne’s process was bouncing ideas off other people. “Getting a new perspective [is important.] When you stare at something for hours it looks the same to you, but when someone else sees it 10 new things come up, ” Payne said. Senior Noah Lanphear agreed with Payne and said some of his ideas come from people he’s talked to. “I try not to look at my designs as my designs, they’re a culmination of conversations,” Lanphear said. Lanphear’s design equipped a backpack named Flare with turn signals and reflective material, perfect for urban bike riders. The backpack uses an app that syncs with Google Maps to determine when riders will need to turn or when they come to a stop. “Visibility is the first line of defense [for bikers,]” Lanphear said. Every aspect of the bag, from material to color, is intended to provide greater visibility for its user. Although the backpack has an effortless design, actually creating it was anything but. “The whole process itself takes you on this rollercoaster,” Lanphear said. The project required him to learn new sewing and patterning skills. While tedious, Lanphear said the sewing was not his greatest challenge. “When you want to synthesize all you’ve collected to solve a problem, that’s the hardest part. There are so many variables,” Lanphear said. Junior Eli Selch used a top-down method while designing his Migrate backpack. With each version of his design, Selch created a simpler product. “What inspires me is how simple you can get something to be and still functional,” Selch said. Migrate is a sleek messenger-style bag aimed at frequent flyers who need to charge their electronics on the go, Selch said. To a novice, complexity in the bags might seem more impressive, but Selch said choosing what not to include is more difficult than choosing what to include. “It’s harder to decide what to leave out. It all depends on how much time you have to pair it down and ruminate on [the design,]” Selch said. Junior Tyler Mead said he also tries to keep his designs fairly simple. “I focus on asking, ‘How can I make this as simply as I can?’” Mead said. “Not to say I want to make the job easy for myself, but you don’t need to overcomplicate design.” For most of the students, it's their classmates that serve as the first firing wall in paring down their designs. “[Working with] a tight-knit group of 11 people, it's easy to ask for critique,” Selch said. “You can get attached to ideas easily [and think,] ‘I have to have this in my bag because I spent all this time on it.’ Someone else can say it isn’t working, and you’ll end up with something a lot better.” Mead created two designs for the project. In researching streetwear culture, Mead found that his targets wanted something that stood out or something neutral. Most streetwear fashion focuses on combining bold color and pattern combinations with a mix of high and low fashions. His first design was a simple backpack intended to blend into any outfit. “It was functional, but it wasn’t exciting, and that’s the feedback I got from my classmates and professor,” Mead said. After going back to the drawing board, Mead created Chameleon, a poncho that uses smart fabric technology to change colors on the wearer’s whim. The thread uses electrical signals similar to those used in the electronic ink of Kindles, so it doesn’t need constant power. The fabric is still in early stages of design and can only manage one or two colors but, in the future, developers hope to provide users with an unlimited number of patterns. As technology advances, fabrics could even be linked to a network allowing groups to change color based on location or weather. Mead said his approach to design has changed through his time in the program. “It’s less focused on aesthetic and more focused on the function and research side of it,” Mead said. ‘Keep it simple, and it’ll take care of itself.” In thinking about the original challenge that the project presented to him, Mead reflected on his focus while designing. “It’s easy to get trapped into designing with a capital ‘D’ thinking it has to be perfect, but it's all about the user in the end,” Mead said. While the user-friendly bags looked ready for market, most students were reluctant to pursue them further. Some said lack of expertise or funds in the specific market held them back, while others didn’t feel they could give even more time to the project. “We do a lot of projects but, with the time frame we have, we just have to keep going forward,” Lanphear said. What lies ahead seems to be a favorite topic of the designers. There is power in knowing they will be the ones shaping the future to be more beautiful, to be more harmonious and perhaps, to be more simple. The Western Gallery, where the backpacks are still on display, is open Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and Saturday from 12 to 4 p.m.