Monday, December 17, 2007

LilyPads and Wearable Electronics

This evening I accidentally came across the website of one Leah Buechley, a woman who may change the face of clothing as we know it.

Long ago, I got a BA in Art, with dual emphases in Conceptual Design (read: early computer graphics and concept follow-through) and textiles. I tried, in every way I knew how, to combine the two: I made weavings out of wires, adding LEDs and plugs; I learned about their new computerized loom, I thought long and hard about how to get computerized technology into fabric. But it was too early, the technology was too clunky, and everyone was looking at me like I was a lunatic, so eventually I gave up.

Imagine my pleasure at coming across Ms. Buechley's wonderful DIY site, where she shows you how you, too, can create amazing interactive clothing with the LilyPad Arduino, a washable, flexible fabric circuit system you sew together with conductive thread, so that your whole body becomes circuitry, and, for example, if you move your arm quickly it sets off LEDs in your clothes. Or: if you put your coat on, your clothes go dark. Take it off, your clothes light up. Best of all, you can use things like snaps to keep the circuitry going when you attach things together.

The RGB LED chages color in response to motion and tilt from the accelerometer which is sewn to the right wrist.

I'm telling you: this woman is smart.

The Arduino is "an open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software. It's intended for artists, designers, hobbyists, and anyone interested in creating interactive objects or environments. Arduino can sense the environment by receiving input from a variety of sensors and can affect its surroundings by controlling lights, motors, and other actuators" (See more here).

It's hard to describe how this is different from previous interactive clothing. For one thing, she has come at it from a textile person's perspective, redesigning the whole circuitry thing to look like...well, parts of clothes. For another thing, all the pieces in the group of items (she calls it a "kit", but they are all sold separately) seem to be made as patches, with iron-on circuitry; and there are no wires or weird bits that you have to hide or otherwise deal with (Though the picture of the LilyPad for sale seems harder than the one above. I'll have to find out about that - still, it's not much bigger than a quarter).

Ms. Buechley helps you access the materials, and shows, in clear step-by-step instructions, not only how to use the LilyPad and attendant bits, but things like how to use needle-nosed pliers to turn a regular LED into a decorative sew-on bead, so you can have as many LEDs flashing across your clothing as you want. And she has lots of Flickr pics to look at, too.

She says:

"I am interested in integrating "feminine" activities like sewing with computer science, mathematics and technology. I think that social issues more often than lack of talent discourage women from entering math, technology and science related fields, and I hope to help create environments where women's interests are explored and represented."

Her kits for kids are available for only $15 to make little wearable LED items for themselves (with a little help). I have been trying very hard to find ways to make the robotics curriculum I teach at the local school into something more exciting for girls; their interest, always fickle, waxes and wanes depending on the personality of the students. Not only could we do the kids' kit, but then we could move on to real programming, using the LilyPad itself. This is a sure-fire technological way to get girls' attention, for those of you out there with smart daughters or sisters. In fact, this is a sure-fire way to get my attention. I can't wait to start making stuff.

Finally, after all these years.

Buy the LilyPad development kit from SparkFun


FleaCircusDirector said...

Congratulations, your blog got a mention in last weekend's Guide along with my Fleas and Circuses.

Heather McDougal said...

Wow! Hooray!

FleaCircusDirector said...

Have you seen electroluminescent panels, I first saw those back in the 1990s. The are flexible sheets that glow when you apply power, they should work for large areas of clothing.

Here's a link

Heather McDougal said...

Yes, I've seen that and the EL thread, and so on. Very neat stuff, but unfortunately its half-life is on the verge of being disposable (about 300 hours or something), and as far as I know it's not washable.

Jean said...

It would be nice if the fencing world can pick up on this. I hate electric fencing. It's so fragile, you spend too much time dinking around with equipment. And it's expensive, too.