2005 Annual Design Review Equipment Best of Category

Posted inID Mag

Search + Rescue CommVest When the jurors convened to discuss the entries after a long morning’s preliminary round of cuts, the first item for scrutiny was Nike’s Comm-Vest, a radio harness designed for ski-patrol and search-and-rescue teams. “To me, this was the standout product,” Ancona announced. Seck, whose first language is French, added, “It is magnifique.” Hours later, no other entry had surpassed that bar.

At first glance, you’d never know that the vest contained a speaker, a mic, two electrical switches and connectors, and 100 inches of wire. Its brilliant red color and fitted cut are classic Nike. The tech is in the details. The molded black plastic sewn into the collar, for instance, is a removable speaker. A mic, again encased in plastic, is embedded in the vest a few inches from the mouth, and just below that is a push-to-talk button, big enough for use by gloved hands. Finally, two zippered pockets hold the radio and transceiver, which plug into the vest’s electronics via cable.

The CommVest grew out of a collaboration between Nike’s outdoor apparel group and the Explore Studio, an advanced concepts team led by Ray Riley, though the project ultimately drew in people from Nike’s Techlab, brand design group, and beyond. Ancona appreciated this breadth of talent, saying, “Nike is the only company that could integrate technical hardware and clothing so well. You see other people do it and it is so clumsy.”

But the key to the project’s success was a different collaboration—with the local Portland Mountain Rescue Team and the Mount Hood Meadows Ski Patrol. The squads were having several problems with their communications gear. The standard radio harness is a pocket held to the body by straps and worn under a jacket to keep it safe from the elements. Muffled by the coat and competing with the wind, the radio was often impossible to hear. Working in freezing environments, rescuers would often take off their gloves and unzip their coats to access the push-to-talk button. The chest-mounted VHF radios were bulky and got in the way during rope descents; the harnesses tend to fit loosely and don’t provide a place for the transceiver, necessitating a second harness; and the problems go on.

Nike developed a range of concepts, built a rough prototype out of scavenged parts, and then refined, tested, and refined some more, going back to the rescue teams for feedback at every stage. The result is a tool adapted to its user, rather than the other way around, a fact that wasn’t lost on the jurors. As Johnson put it, “they really took care of the person who’s going to use this.”

Search + Rescue CommVest

Design Shane Kohatsu, industrial designer, Nike EXPLORE Advanced Concept Studio (Beaverton, OR). Scott Hutsenpiller, apparel designer, Nike ACG Apparel Client Nike, Inc. Materials Waterproof/breathable fabrics; Nike Sphere materials; polycarbonate and TPE molded parts; conductive textile cables and switch Software Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop; Rhino 3D

Q+A with with Shane Kohatsu Explore Studio, Nike

What was your mission with this project? We sat down with the rescue teams to learn about any equipment problems they were having. At that point, we didn’t have this project in mind. It wasn’t so different from talking to Michael Jordan about changes he’d like with his shoes. But radio communication was one of the problems they mentioned and we thought we could solve it. We also saw the project as an opportunity to learn about incorporating communications into apparel, gaining insight that would translate to consumer products. We’ve since introduced a jacket and a backpack.

The vest looks very Nike.

Was it hard to design a product that met both the functional needs of the rescue team and the aesthetic needs of the brand? Not really. The design was driven purely by function. Every detail has a purpose. The shape of the vest, for instance, was determined by the need to distribute the gear’s weight. The speaker collar, which does make the vest look better, was added in the final iteration because the shoulder-mounted speaker in the previous version was getting in the way of the rescuers’ backpack straps.

What was your greatest difficulty? The biggest challenge was integrating the electronic cables and switches into a garment that could pass our 50-cycle wash-and-dry test. We partnered with a company called SoftSwitch that made a textile-based sensor. At the time, the technology was elegant but relatively unproven. We needed to make it more robust.

What happens when you want to upgrade? Do you have to buy a new vest? That’s one of the things we considered from the start. Because technology becomes obsolete every six months or so, we decided not to incorporate the brains into the product. The radio is an accessory that plugs into the vest’s port, so you’re never stuck with a particular model.

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