Karli Cengija started working in the tech industry when she was 16, despite the fact that she touched a computer for the first time just four years earlier. Her family had just moved to the United States from Bosnia when she stumbled upon the device at a local community center. She was immediately hooked.
“I really, really enjoyed it, so I asked my parents to get me a computer, and they did,” she said. That fascination quickly led to her involvement in the open source community. “I was able to connect with other people through the internet, which is really important — that’s when things take off,” she said. “You can study on your own, but it’s when you connect with other people that you really get exposed to different areas.”
Those same connections helped her land at Intel’s Portland office seven years ago, after leaving behind a systems analyst job in finance. She came on as a developer in Intel’s mobile wireless group and worked her way up to innovation engineer, where she now works across disciplines to create unique wearable experiences.
None of her success stems from a typical computer engineering background: While in college, she studied applied linguistics and philosophy instead. “But that’s one of the things I find really fascinating — how technology fits into so many different industries,” she said. Her team currently includes a diverse assortment of mechanical engineers, UX designers, anthropologists, astrophysicists and mathematicians.
Smart glasses and a belt that Cengija worked on with Hussein Chalayan
So, what exactly does an innovation engineer do? “I tinker a lot,” she said, elaborating that she experiments with different sensors and applications. That includes everything from creating prototypes as proofs-of-concept for her team of engineers, to testing out new methods of “wiring for the body.” Regarding the latter, she explains: “In technology, we like putting things into hard shells so things don’t move, so I experiment with various ways of addressing where the soft meets the hard.” In other words, where technology meets the body.
This is especially crucial when working with fashion designers, her frequent collaborators. Cengija has helped everyone from industry veteran Hussein Chalayan (pictured with Cengija, above) to the upstart brand Tome to bring their technical visions to life. “I like the way designers work — it’s very agile, very in-the-moment,” she said. What’s more, there’s always a short timeline, “which makes you perform better and more engaged in your work.”
For Chalayan’s spring 2017 show at Paris Fashion Week, she worked with the designer to develop a pair of accessories — glasses and a belt — that communicated with each other to identify the wearer’s stress level. Powered by the Intel Curie module, the glasses gathered biometric data on the wearer’s sensors brainwaves, heart rate and breathing patterns. That information was then sent to the belt, which held Intel’s Compute Stick (basically a tiny computer), where it was translated into one of five different visual symbols that were then projected onto a wall. One visual, for example, showed someone pulling on a rope — the tighter the grip, the more stressed the wearer. “It adds a gamification aspect to it because you want to keep the rope loose,” said Cengija. “It’s this notion of exposing things to yourself that you’re [already sensing] on the inside and making meaning of things that are normally hidden.”
Hussein Chalayan and Karli Cengija
With Tome, she helped create a bracelet and a sustainable bag that were more focused on the environment and its relation wellness — they tracked things like ambient temperature, toxic gases and barometric pressure.
“Fashion and technology are perfect partners — they’re so different in many ways, but each one has what the other one doesn’t,” said Cengija. Aside from its practical uses, fashion is about aesthetics and evoking a mood, she said, while the beauty of technology lies in what it can do — and how efficiently. “We now have technology that can be embedded into something more aesthetically [pleasing],” she said. “So it’s about figuring out how to enable garments to sense things about the body without limiting [the garments themselves].”
She believes we’ll start seeing these interactions more and more as Intel continues to develop a language between the two different worlds. In engineer-speak, that means creating more sensing algorithms, making products more energy efficient and overcoming challenges like making such designs washable. Eventually, she hopes, a new standard of production will emerge.
“What I’m hoping to achieve is [not to] have technology take over our lives, but to help us be more present every day by offloading [stuff].”