Alumni profile: Kitty Yeung, Ph.D. ’15

Tuesday, November 28, 2017 - 2:30pm

Fashion technologist works where art and physics collide

Growing up in Hong Kong and Shenzhen, China, Kitty Yeung was torn between two passions: physics and art. She prioritized academic training for her educational path, opting for physics because of the potential to positively impact society.

“The more I learned about physics, the more inspired I became,” she said. “It is the study of nature. I found it very beautiful to understand how the universe works and how we construct things on the earth.”

After earning a Ph.D. in applied physics at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) in 2015, Yeung found a unique marriage of her interests, working as a research scientist at Intel Labs in Santa Clara, while also pursuing side projects as a freelance fashion technologist.

By day, she explores novel solid-state technologies in an effort to make communications systems more efficient. Using photonics, Yeung is part of a team that develops faster transceivers with wider bandwidth to reduce costs and energy consumption at massive data centers.

“I’m always coming up with ideas,” she said. “Our research work is exploratory, and that is the fun thing about it. In the lab, I keep an eye out for other applications of these silicon photonic chips, perhaps in our daily electronics or even in wearables.”

Yeung’s interest in consumer technology goes back to her days as a Ph.D. student in the lab of Donhee Ham, Gordon McKay Professor of Electrical Engineering and Applied Physics. Her thesis focused on constructing plasmonic circuits in 2D electron systems; harnessing the functionality of plasmonic waves to create circuit structures that can be 100,000 times smaller in mode-area than their electronic counterparts. But as she completed the intricate experiments, Yeung felt a burning desire to learn something new.

An artist by nature, she enjoyed drawing beautiful clothing for the comic book characters she created, so she purchased a sewing machine, taught herself to use it, and began making physical outfits. In the meanwhile, she finished her thesis and accepted a job at Intel in Santa Clara. Also an avid painter, Yeung soon began printing her paintings onto garments, creating fashion that matched her artwork. She kept tinkering, and began exploring ways to incorporate the electronics she used in the lab into her fashion designs.

Soon, Yeung was a full-fledged fashion technologist, incorporating LEDs and motion sensors into the vivid dresses she produced.

“I’m driven by my interest in pure art,” she said. “By combining my scientific expertise with my passion, I’m able to develop designs while learning new skills and satisfying my own curiosity and need to try new things.”

The Bay Area arts community quickly took notice of her work, and she was invited to participate in San Francisco Fashion Week last year.

Her employer noticed her fashion designs, too, and a group at Intel that developed maker hardware reached out to Yeung for help. The company manufactured a variety of maker hardware devices, from Arduino-compatible microcontrollers to open-source Edison and Curie chips, but demonstrating potential uses of this hardware is often challenging, Yeung explained.

“This kind of work really requires people to come up with crazy and innovative ideas, so this group hired me to do a lot of design as part of Intel’s user experience and outreach effort,” she said. “I really loved it, because I kept on learning new skills, as I was building things that became useful for other people.”

Yeung uses Intel components in her projects; designing the dress, soldering the circuits, and then writing up blog posts about the fashion and the technology. Her articles showcase unique uses of Intel technologies, like accelerometers or pattern matching engines, while appealing to the artistic sensibilities of makers.

One of Yeung’s favorite projects is a dress covered in LEDs, designed to represent stars in the night sky. When the wearer moves her arm in certain ways, different miniature constellations light up. Another project, which demonstrates Bluetooth technology, involves sunglasses with changeable transparency. Not only can users manipulate the transparency of sunglasses worn by nearby individuals, interactions like a handshake or a nod, or even a certain heart rate, can also trigger a change in opacity. Yeung said these projects aim to create unique user experiences and enhance friendly human-to-human interactions with the assistance of technology.

Using Bluetooth technology, these sunglasses enable users to manipulate the transparency of sunglasses worn by nearby individuals. (Photo provided by Kitty Yeung.)

She sees her pieces as more than an outlet for her own artistic passions. Hopefully, these designs could influence the entire wearables industry, which has been hampered by products that are bulky, uncomfortable, or ugly, Yeung said.

“I want people to love my designs from an aesthetic standpoint. Instead of forcing people to accept the technology, if they already love the piece, then the electronics part is like a bonus for them,” she said. “Designing is just the beginning part of my effort. I would love to push the garment and technology industries to be more integrated.”

She envisions a future where more garment manufacturers are able to seamlessly incorporate technological features into products, making wearables more appealing for users and producers.

Looking back on her initial decision to pursue science over art, Yeung has no regrets. With an artist’s eye and a physicist’s intellect, she has found an ideal way to make a positive contribution to society.

You can find instructions for the projects mentioned in this article, and other open-source projects, on Yeung's website.

Watch as Yeung demonstrates a dress she created that incorporates LEDs to create constellations based on movements of the user's arm. (Photo provided by Kitty Yeung.)