Category Archives: hacking

Tribeca Hacks StoryMatter Hackathon at CERN

Team3 on the balcony at CERN

In March 2014, I was over the moon to be selected to take part in the Tribeca Hacks and CERN’s StoryMatter Hackathon, at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. It’s really hard to write about this amazing experience in a short blog post, which is why it’s taken so long to write, but I’ve had a go!

Watch this amazing documentary of our week at CERN – it gives me goosebumps!

After taking the CERN shuttlebus to the familiar sight of CERN reception at Meyrin, I can’t put into words how excited I was to be back at CERN, and then sitting in the Geneva afternoon sunshine and meeting the steady stream of other attendees arriving. I stayed in Building 38, one of the three buildings at CERN, which offer different kinds of visitor accommodation. Building 38 is the on site-hostel which is comfortable and next door to the main restaurant which is large and has lots of different food options for the discerning CERN employee or visitor.

It's a beautiful sunny day at CERN

On the evening of our arrival, we all met for dinner in the main restaurant building and found our teams. Each of the 7 teams had 6 members that included: 1 x blackbox, 1 x storyteller, 1 x scientist, 1 x designer and 2 x technologists. It was really exciting to meet my team, which we later named Team 3, in the flesh after spending a week or so chatting about our ideas on Google Hangout and exchanging emails. My team consisted of Ivaylo Getov (Blackbox, from NYC, USA), Jason Wishnow (Storyteller from NYC, USA), Jasmine Idun Lyman (Designer from Gothenburg, Sweden), Kyle Gustafson (Scientist from Lausanne, Switzerland) and Julian Maciejewski (Technologist from Warsaw, Poland) and me, another technologist from London, UK. As we were quite an opinionated bunch with much experience of developing and managing our own projects and creativity, it took a bit of time to brainstorm through the set of ideas that we’d each percolated over on the week or so on the run up to coming to CERN and agree on an idea to pursue.


Welcome talk

We had a beautiful week at CERN weather-wise and awoke every morning to the sight of sunshine bouncing off the surrounding Alps and Jura mountains. On our first morning (and the rest) we were up very early (I got up at 5 or 6am every day) and were taken to the CERN Idealab, which would be our base for the coming week. Organisers: Opeyemi Olukemi, Manager, TFI Digital Initiatives, Amelie Leenhardt, Program Coordinator, TFI Digital Initiatives and Neal David Hartman, Artistic Director of CineGlobe Film Festival, led the introductions and outline of the week ahead. Our mission was to investigate new ways of telling science stories in a non-linear fashion, using technology, and our challenges were to come up with a prototype and/or a video to outline and document our projects to show at the end of the week at the prestigious CineGlobe Science Film Festival, held in the Globe at CERN, plus to strengthen connections between the disciplines of storytelling, technology, design and science, hence having a cross-disciplinary team.

Rummaging through CERN bins for parts

Amazingly, we were allowed to rummage in a couple of skips of electronics to look for inspiration for our projects, we had so much fun finding odd devices, bits of old interfaces and computer boards!

Prof John Ellis talk on CERN

On our first day we were wonderfully honoured to be given a talk on the history and work of CERN by Professor John Ellis, including an introduction to how the LHC works, particle physics and supersymmetry, he patiently answered lots of questions from us too. We were also very admiring of his Standard Model equation tank-top!

Last minute hacking

Our team decided to make an app telling the story of dark matter, our prototype uses interview clips that we recorded on site with Professor Martin Pohl, Director of the Nuclear and Particle Physics Department at the University of Geneva, and Team Leader on the AMS (Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer) project. The AMS is a particle detector bolted onto the International Space Station and is looking for evidence of antimatter and dark matter as it orbits the Earth.

Team³ late Sunday night hacking

Taken from our blurb, this reflects what we were interested in creating:
“Axion invites a player to immerse themselves in a unique audiovisual world and reflect on their journey. By allowing a player to discover the thoughts and statements of these scientists, we hope to draw a parallel between the visual poetry and the scientific language, illuminating a creative and expressive side of the discussion that is often not showcased, or that most people outside the scientific community do not hear. We want to leave the viewer not with answers, but with a sense that it is acceptable to be uncertain – realizing that the method of science is not the ultimate source of answers, but rather a way to ask questions.”

It's a BillT!

On day three, we had some special visitors who had come to hear about the StoryMatter Hackathon – it was none other than Bill Thompson, Gareth Mitchell and Colin Grant of BBC World Service technology programme Click Radio, they made a lovely radio programme about the StoryMatter Hackathon and interviewed us about our project. Another special visitor was David Reid from BBC Click TV programme, who made a film about the CineGlobe festival including coverage of the development of our apps at the Hackathon

Team3 being interviewed for BBC World ServiceClick

Our team worked long hours and had little sleep during the week as we figured out what we would make and how. We constructed our non-linear app, which we called Axion (a hypothetical elementary particle) by taking an XBOX Kinect strapped onto a camera into the depths of the tunnels under the buildings of CERN to film and turn images of the tunnels into a mesh construct, which the user of the app would navigate around to find interview clips from Professor Pohl. We made sound recordings from around CERN to be used in the soundtrack and searched for inspiring images from outer and inner space. My contribution was an sensing e-textiles device which was used to navigate around the mesh tunnels in the app and we called The Oracle!

During our week at CERN, it was Paolo’s birthday, he didn’t think anyone knew, but we put on a surprise birthday party for him, with caek, music and bubbles – it was wonderful and a very touching way to celebrate our new friend’s special day!

Birthday party for Paulo

Visiting ATLAS at CERN

Our stay was full of amazing highlights and another was a tour of ATLAS (A Toroidal LHC Apparatus), which is one of the seven experiments attached to the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator. We took a lift 100 meters underneath CERN’s Meyrin Campus to visit 7000-tonne ATLAS. As well as listening in awe to our guide and taking many photos, we also (with the permission of the guide) wore some of Jasmine’s knitted gas-masks and did a quick bit of filming for a film she was making back in Sweden. The knitted gas-masks gave a fun and surreal feel to our trip; they certainly amused the rest of our StoryMatter tour party!

Visiting ATLAS at CERN

Opeyemi and Amelie set us tasks for every day of the week, including setting our milestones and actions to enable us to stay focussed on our projects. Everyone worked so hard on their prototypes that the presentation evening at CineGlobe came all too soon, during the late afternoon we took our prototypes over to the CERN Globe and set them up and rehearsed among ourselves our presentations to do on stage to the 200+ attendees. We had a brilliant evening of presenting and a lovely cocktail event after where the attendees came round and partook in demos and chatted to the teams.

Pretty CERN Globe at night

Finally presenting our hacks at CineGlobe Festival

Afterwards we had a raucous party in the Idealab with trays of lasagne, pizza, beers, wine and more. The dancing went on all night and into the morning. I only had a few hours sleep before it was time to get up and pack to leave, I was very sad to leave CERN and it was heart wrenching to say goodbye to everyone. I had the most brilliant week, with the most talented and wonderful new friends, which was amazingly well organised by Opeyemi, Amelie and Neal, plus with the help of brilliant CERN staff and students too numerous to mention, who helped us locate tools, interviewees, beg and borrow kit and info. If I had the opportunity I would go back to CERN without hesitation and have keeping an eye out for jobs and other creative opportunities.

StoryMatter hack party

I have a ton of photos here if you’d like to see more of the antics we got up to!

Route Marie Curie at CERN

Finally presenting our hacks at CineGlobe Festival

Team3 are still developing our Axion app in our spare time and keeping in touch across 1000s of miles around the globe via Google Hangout and email. We are now using a NeuroSky MindWave EEG headset to allow the user to navigate the tunnels and interviews of our app. We have also interviewed more scientists to broaden the range of the stories about dark matter. We’ve also been applying for development grants and sponsorship to help us develop Axion. In April, Ivaylo and Jason took Axion to the Tribeca Interactive Festival, in New York, to demonstrate and allow attendees to experience it.

Finally presenting our hacks at CineGlobe Festival

Finally presenting our hacks at CineGlobe Festival

Makers’ Guild: Making and Wearable Technology, C4CC

Fiddian welcomes everyone

I had a great evening at Makers’ Guild meet-up on Making and Wearable Technology at C4CC in Kings Cross. As the event title suggests, it was an evening of talks around various aspects of wearable technology. Fiddian Warman was our genial host on one of the hottest days of the year and kept us cool with a selection of chilled beverages.

Camille Baker presenting on 'Hacking the Body'

First up was Camille Baker, who is a media artist, curator and researcher, currently lecturing at Brunel University. She gave a compelling talk on ‘Hacking the Body’, a project that looks at the convergence of biosensors, wearable technology and performance. Her research looks at repurposing hacked data from sensors on around the body for performance and installation. Camille also showed some other examples of research, such as the Phillips SKIN project, which looks at emotional sensing via ‘soft technology’ garments.

Me presenting 'On Wearable Technology, Makers & Making'

Second up, was myself. I gave a rambling introduction to wearable technology from early examples, such as abacus rings of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) to the influence of science fiction, with some ideas from Star Trek that have come to fruition in real life, to cyborgs and ethics. I also spoke about how Makers have become involved with wearable tech in terms of making and also teaching and passing on skills. Finally I showed examples of my two latest wearable tech projects, the Baroesque Barometric Skirt and EEG Visualising Pendant.

Third up, was Alex Glowaski, who is a curious Hacker and Maker from San Francisco, she gave a great talk about ‘NFC (Near Field Communication) for Wearables’. Alex compared the technologies of RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) and NFC for using in wearable tech, plus also gave some info on other tech such as Bluetooth and QR codes. The highlight of Alex’s talk (for me) was a user case and video demonstrating her Cheer Follower fitness tracker which uses NFC – I’m looking forward to hearing news on how this exciting project progresses.

Alex Glowaski presenting on 'NFC for Wearables'

There followed some interesting Q&A before decanting to the pub for excellent conversations and swapping info on projects and ideas. Thanks very much to Fidd for organising, Camille and Alex for being fabulous, to C4CC for hosting and to all the lovely people who came along.

Alex Glowaski's video on Cheer Follower wearable tech

MusicHackTee interactive musical scale t-shirt

Meep, belatedly catching up with blogging about Music Hackday London, which happened back in December 2011 and was held in the wonderfully retro boardrooms of the Barbican, London.

My hack for Music Hackday was an interactive musical t-shirt and as you can see I’ve ‘hacked’ the official Music Hackday t-shirt ;-) I didn’t win any prizes, possibly because just about every sponsor awarded prizes only to people who made apps with their APIs – so a bit disappointing and a bit of an issue for Hackdays.

Basically I wrote a script that allows a LilyPad Arduino to use its pads as a musical keyboard. I’ve elongated these pads to make a musical scale and the user can play tunes in the C scale – C,D,E,F,G,A,B,C

The piece uses LilyPad Arduino with sewable conductive thread, rather than wires to conduct voltage and signal.


To play it the user takes a stylus and plays the notes on the LilyPad pads or can play by touching the conductive thread tracks or pad on the corresponding LEDs which also light up individually when a note is played.

It was also an exercise in acknowledging one’s blushing embarrassment in that it’s quite odd and one feels self conscious to be wearing a musical t-shirt played by someone else – maybe better to stick to playing such things yourself ;-)


If you’d like to see some of the hacks, have a peruse of the Music Hackday wiki.

Don’t Break My Heart – wearable distance warning system for cyclists

Don’t Break My Heart is a wearable, colour-coded distance warning system prototype for cyclists to wear on their back. It incorporates a sewable LilyPad Arduino microcontroller, RGB LED, proximity sensor, conductive thread and fabrics to create an easily Velcro-ed on and off (moveable between garments & bags) and highly visible alert for traffic traveling behind cyclists.

A pulsating RGB LED heart is triggered by a proximity sensor if a vehicle is detected traveling close behind. I’ve used traffic light colour-coding for the super-bright RGB LED: a slow green pulsating light in the heart-shaped diffuser indicates a safe distance is being maintained, an amber faster light indicates that caution should be observed and a red rapidly pulsating light indicates to the driver that they need to back off and give the cyclist some space. As this is a prototype at the ideas stage, safe distances and final technology, such as sonar for proximity detection and other materials/components would be tested and confirmed later in the design process.

I created the first iteration of this piece of wearable tech at Hondahack within a 12 hour deadline. I wasn’t happy with the look of it just because I’d rushed to kludge it together for the presentations, so after and when I had the time, I unpicked the conductive thread and components, and put it back together.

'Don't Break My Heart' - proximity sensing visual warning system prototype for vehicles behind cyclists

For those interested, here’s my write up of my weekend at Hondahack

Held at the Guardian offices in November 2011 and brought together by the fabulous Rewired State people, Hondahack was a different kind of hack day than any I’d attended before as it was totally sponsored by Honda as part of their ‘Dream Factory’ which includes a group of people they’ve brought together and deemed ‘cultural engineers’ – quoting from the page in the Graunaid it describes them as “people who embody the Honda philosophy of pushing forward and venturing into the unknown”.


One had to apply for a place at the hack weekend and twenty-three were selected, of which three were women, which is typical of hack days – more often than not because not very many women apply to attend these events.

The article in the Guardian about the event describes the attendees as ‘developers’, and as it was wrapped up in future publicity for Honda there was a camera crew who created a set of fancy videos capturing much posing of the Honda ‘cultural engineers’ around the Guardian offices and also contained sound bites from the attendees, which you can watch here.


On the first morning we introduced ourselves and were shown some Honda motivational videos, we were then encouraged to openly brainstorm ideas and form teams. We then went and looked at the new Honda Civic car in the Graunaid car park, this took us up to lunchtime and after it was time to get hacking. Oh yes, we were given these values assigned to the new car to consider as a brief / guide for our hacks…

“If we never venture into the unknown, how do we get anywhere new?”


  • Quality: unparalleled reliability: ‘A class above’
  • Technology: intelligent, useful, innovative, ‘as standard’, economical clean
    Design: sporty + versatile, intuitive, personality, stand-out, confident, aerodynamic
  • Evolution: quiet + comfortable, refinement, honing of everything

My hack was a hardware hack, which is strangely still pretty much an anomaly at hack days, so I didn’t really expect it to win anything, plus many of the other attendees were creating vehicle / cyclist warning apps. Anyway, my hack was a prototype for a wearable distance warning system for cyclists to wear on their back that was Velcro on-and-offable. It used a traffic light LED system to indicate to traffic traveling behind of their proximity.

Sewing my Hondahack components together to make Don't Break My Heart

Here’s my description that I wrote on the day…

“London can be a daunting and scary place for a cyclist. Here in Kings Cross we have seen many cyclists hurt or killed on the roads, in London and all over the UK visibility for cyclists is an issue. My hack for Hondahack is a piece of wearable technology using LilyPad Arduino, RGB LED, proximity sensor, conductive thread and fabrics to create an easily velcro-ed on and off and highly visable alert for traffic traveling behind cyclists. A pulsating RGB LED heart is triggered by a proximity sensor if something is travelling close behind it. A green calm pulsating heart indicates a safe distance is maintained, an amber faster heart indicates that caution should be observed and a red rapidly pulsating heart indicates to the driver that they need to back off and give the cyclist some space.”

I created my hack in less than 12 hours and as I didn’t have the relevant components at Hondahack, I had to go home and get them. So I breadboarded / crocodile clipped a prototype, wrote some code and was up and soldering at 7.30am on Sunday before I went back to the Graunaid where I spent all day furiously sewing my e-textiles, wearable hack together with conductive thread before the presentations at 3pm. I wouldn’t have stopped and eaten all day if it hadn’t been for Emma Mulqueeny, who very kindly made me a tasty vegan risotto and reminded me to eat it – which I wolfed down when it was placed in front of me.

Presenting my Hondahack: Don't Break My Heart

My hack called ‘Don’t Break My Heart’ didn’t win any prizes, but it was nice to get an honourable mention from one of the judges in the summing up. All the winners and hacks are here on this handy page – far easier to browse than me writing them all out for you.

Sewing my Hondahack components together to make Don't Break My Heart

A few weeks after Hondahack I was really pleased to hear that Honda decided they were not going to keep the IP for all the hacks (which at first seemed to be the case).

Ada Lovelace Day, 2011: Sarah Angliss, Intrepid Engineer

Ada Lovelace Day aims to raise the profile of women working in technology, engineering, maths and science by celebrating their work and hopefully creating new role models to encourage and inspire others to follow a career, study or a hobby in these disciplines.

Sarah & her speaking teapot

For Ada Lovelace Day, 2011, I’m writing about my good friend: the multi-talented artist, composer and performer, Sarah Angliss. Sarah is an engineer trained in electro-acoustics, music and robotics and also holds a master’s degree in evolutionary and adaptive systems. Her work combines technology with vintage sound equipment and intertwines spooky science stories and eclectic curiosities into the mix.


She has also been a creator of sound installation pieces for events, exhibitions, and live shows since 1996, featuring robots such as Clara 2.0, the ‘polite robot thereminist’, Hugo, the haunting singing ventriloquist’s dummy, The Ealing Feeder a 28-note, polyphonic, electromechanical carillon and the somewhat scary crooning Edgar Allan Crow – whose eyes you must not look into!

Uncanny Valley: Edgar Allen Crow

On top of all this, Sarah has also led projects such as Infrasonic, as research project to explore emotional effects of extreme bass sound. Sarah is also a writer and gives talks about vintage technology oddities and poses questions such as “We know we can teach birds to talk and sing. But were birds ever used as primordial, feathered music recorders?” as discussed in her Radio 4 documentary “The Bird Fancyer’s Delight”, which aired in July 2011. Talks include her fascinating talk at TEDx Brighton, “Loving the Machine” which drew connections between two types of dance music which developed a century apart and were created by people were working to the relentless beat of factory machines.

Uncanny Valley: Hugo

Sarah performs as part of Spacedog with her sister Jenny, compere Colin, plus robot and human guests such as Professor Elemental. Their repertoire includes much spooky exploration into the depths of technology folklore paired with intriguing and inventive use of instruments such as the theremin, spangley water instrument and the saw. In their recent award winning Televisor show they “summon the spirit of John Logie Baird as they perform with flickering projections, created live on their working reconstruction of Baird’s original 1920s televisor”.

Spacedog being spookeh at BMMF party

There’s tons more stuff I could mention, so please have a peruse through her website(s) to find out more. A perfect afternoon out with Sarah would include having some tea & caek, some rummaging and tinkering in a bag of electronics components (as she’s always hacking at something) and plotting some electronics mayhem – the lady is a proper geek – hurrah \o/

You make my heart flutter – wearable sensing device & Heart Spark hack

For the past few weeks I’ve been working on the first stage of a project that involves hacking Eric Boyd’s excellent Heart Spark PCB pendant and combining it with a sensor module I’ve made from scratch.

Heart Spark: I uploaded a sketch (code) via fangled FTDI + some header pins

The Heart Spark pulses 6 LEDs to my heartbeat via a signal from my Polar gym chest band transmitter (that usually transmits / displays my heart rate on my Polar wrist watch). The Heart Spark is open source and Eric has kindly made the schematics, code, plus lots of other information available on the website pages for the Heart Spark.

I’m very interested in how sensing technology can display vital signs and how this can be monitored and combined with other tech to give us an insight into our moods, and how our body is reacting to certain situations.

'You make my <3 flutter'

For this proof of concept, here’s the back story / premise I used when considering what I wanted to build and present at Rewired State’s recent (H)activate hack weekend at the Guardian:

“Geeks are very particular about their personal space, so what could be better than a mobile, wearable device that notes their heart rate when someone comes close. Whether you’re cool, calm and collected or get palpitations when a certain someone enters your space, it’s interesting to note how a particular person affects your physicality, whether that be geek love or geek annoyance. It’s not quite your heart on your sleeve, but round your neck!”

For this, I’ve created a heart-shaped proximity detector module to link to the Heart Spark – I’ve named this ‘Flutter’.

To create the Flutter module, firstly I experimented with various combinations of components: an IR proximity sensor, resistor, potentiometer, LED and transistor on a breadboard. The 3.3V coin cell battery that powers the Heart Spark could not give enough output, even when combining with a step up component which boosted the voltage up to 5V to power both the Heart Spark and the proximity sensor.

Circuit diagram for 'You make my <3 flutter'

So I began a period of trial and error with various combinations of batteries, resistors, transistors and twiddling the potentiometer. In the end I gave up fiddling and got my oscilloscope out to find out what was happening. I got some very curious signals from the various battery combinations and step up module I was using, but in the end the solution was to get more juice to the IR proximity sensor. This meant powering it separately and that more batteries were needed. So I settled on a 3 x AA battery pack, for which I’ve made a fabric heart shaped pouch dangling on a twisted twill rope, as it needs to be housed quite close and precisely to the sensor via battery pack connectors.

Hacking the Heart Spark with a proximity sensor - testing on the sillyscope

I have to say, I really feel that powering wearable technology is one of the more irksome things about trying to get this technology into wearables and I’m going to blog about this soon. On that note, the reason I added a 10k Ohm potentiometer to the heart-shaped IR sensor was so that small tweaks to the voltage can be made to the sensor.

Creating a heart-shaped proximity dectector module

To house all the components and with the help of a hacksaw, I made a heart-shaped substrate out of stripboard and coloured it black with a marker pen.

Hacking the Heart Spark – I have hacked Eric’s original code so that the top 3 LEDs on the Heart Spark light up when the IR proximity sensor detects someone in my space. I have some more interesting ideas for the code to work with the Heart Spark in the future, but in the first instance my goal was to get the Heart Spark to acknowledge the IR sensor and light up from its signal.

Hacking the Heart Spark

To upload code from my laptop to the Heart Spark, I fangled an FTDI board (which I usually use with LilyPad Arduinos) with some header pins – so I could connect it to the headers on the Heart Spark. I also soldered two pin headers to ground and positive / signal pins on the Heart Spark, which allows wire connection between the Heart Spark and the Flutter module.

Hactivate: battery pouch made

Hactivate: You make my <3 flutter

Stage 2 and next steps…

For the next iteration, I’d like to add a tiny camera to this work, set to log periodic photos of who or what situation is in front of the wearer. Plus find a way of grabbing the photo, heartbeat and proximity sensor data from the devices and send to my laptop via a sewable a LilyPad Arduino x-Bee transmitter. Sewable, because I’d like it to become part of the heart-shaped battery pack pouch.

I want to graph the data from the two sensors to plot how many times during the day I get fluctuations in my heart rate when someone enters my space and would place the photos from the camera at appropriate points alongside, to see who had made my heart flutter. I’d use this information to work out my physiological state and reactions to certain situations, and people throughout the course of a day.

Other additions I’ve thought about are to include a temperature sensor, to record if someone becomes hot or flushed in certain situations or people and an accelerometer to assess body language by the user’s posture.

Mass participant uses? I’d love to hold a speed-dating event where all the participants wore the “You make my <3 flutter” device to attempt to determine people’s reaction to each other based on their physical data signals.

'You make my <3 flutter'

Thank yous to: Ciaran Anscomb and Eric Boyd for help and advice \o/

Some thoughts on sensing, smart, wearable technology and e-textiles

I get asked a lot about what appeals to me about wearable technology, so I thought I’d put together some of my current thoughts…

I’m fascinated by how sensing, wearable technologies and e-textiles will become an increasingly important addition to our future.

Twinkle Tartiflette on new mannequin
Twinkle Tartiflette – a Lilypad Arduino driven interactive word/music artwork & wearable, 2010.

Whether we like it or not, we presently live in an economic / political era where we’re constantly told there’s not enough money in the community coffers and so resources will become increasing hard to source. The current UK Government is pushing responsibility for many things back at us via the ethos of Big Society as a way to manage shortfalls in community care – which is pretty depressing.

It is very cool and rather convenient then, that in the not too distant future, wearable technology may give us some help with our lifestyle needs and personal independence. We’ve been talking about ubiquitous computing and the social of media for a while now, but how the streams cross and actually become part of us in a much more intimate and useful way interests me.

For me, this is where shrinking computing components, e-textiles and canny design comes together. We’ve had futuristic looking clothing, research and development departments tweaking devices for years, plus utopian ideas gracing sci-fi and all manner of future gazing documents and films, but in reality we’re only just on the cusp of having the right convergence of media, technology and ideas for this micro, wearable future to start becoming a reality.

I feel that wearable technology is on the precipice of an exciting leap into mainstream culture, right now in my humble opinion, it’s at about the same point of development as personal computing was in the 80s: raw, unrefined, without standards, but new, exciting and full of possibilities – as opposed to the clumsy, bulky and unfocused history that prevailed the wearable tech of the past.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that rapid prototyping technology, 3D printing, the culture of Makers and Hackers, Hackspaces and events such as Maker Faire are also interwoven in the history of pushing experimentation with wearable technology forward.

Team Fragile (formerly BOB)
Makers and Hackers event, 2009.

Empowerment via tinkering, due to technologies such as, Arduino, the various flavours of ‘duino microcontrollers, mbed, and particularly sewable microcontrollers, actuators and sensors such as LilyPad Arduino are pushing experiments forward. This is influencing exciting and progressive ideas of what technology means to people and especially into the realms of what people want tailored for them – rather than being antiseptic, turgid or created for commercial gain. All this has made for a liberated approach to creating and thinking what wearable technology could be and can be used for in 2011 and beyond.

Dr Jan Zimmermann on tech embroideries Dr Jan Zimmermann demonstrating new, embedded LED embroidery technology at Smart Fabrics Conference, April 2011.

Earlier this year, in April 2011, I attended the 7th annual Smart Fabrics Conference, hosted this year in London. It’s the world’s symposium for smart, wearable and e-textile technology, and draws presentations and attendees from the cream of the commercial, research and academic side of the community. I observed and learnt a lot from this 3-day experience and noted how diverse and yet still fledgling this growing community is. Comparing my three-day encounter I had with this community to that of the Maker community where I am usually to be found, I feel there is quite a difference between the two. Obviously, there is a commercial difference, so I wasn’t quite sure how much detail of the latest tech was being revealed, but it was very good to hear from researchers and academics and of course the snippets from the commercial side. Speakers represented universities, R&D laboratories and big business, and I noted major funding players such as Adidas, US Army, and Philips, to name a few. It was very interesting to note the difference between this and the Maker / Hacker communities in terms of where their priorities and interests lie, and crucially where the development funding is coming from!

So what’s the commercial potential that is attracting so much attention right now? Well, it’s predominantly flourishing in entertainment, sports, fashion, medical, lifestyle, specialist environmental, space exploration and military areas. To elaborate, here are some examples and a smattering of links to the awesome wearable tech that’s out there, with a few examples of my own work thrown in…

Entertainment and performance: well I could almost just say Lady Gaga, whom has been integral in wearing ever-more complex stage outfits which incorporate all sorts of technology, opening audiences eyes and getting them to accept technology as part of her personality and show. But, all sorts of artists and performers: from ballet dancers to, traveling shows and musicians have, for some time, also been incorporating technology into their outfits and performances.

Electroluminescent panel portholes An electroluminescent panel, part of my Ghost Ship Porthole dress.

The Dare Droid is a startling biomechanic cocktail-making outfit that uses medical and other hacked hardware to mix cocktails in exchange for a game of ‘Truth or Dare’. The performance’s Raison d’être is to explore human interaction in public spaces.

Fashion: from temperature and light sensitive inks, LEDs and electroluminescents, to phones, screens and sensing tech embedded in everyday wear, there is a huge potential for wearable technology and e-textiles to become integrated into fashion.

The N12 3D bikini by Continuum is a stunning example of what can be made by 3D printers. It’s made with Nylon 12 and snaps together so there is no need for stitching and the flexible, intricate design of thousands of connected plates is just amazing.

Amy Winters awesome designs feature prints that use thermo and hydrochromatic inks, that creatively use patterns with the properties of the inks to reveal themselves or disappear depending on light and temperature.

In terms of my own work, Neon-Victoriana Queen is an example of an electroluminescent costume, which I’ve exhibited at Kinetica Art Fair and Maker Faire this year. Its inspiration lies in Japanese Harajuku street fashion, of which I am a big fan and in turn has influenced me to create a my own technology based sub-genre: ‘Neon-Victoriana’. Another is the Ghost Ship Portal dress (below), which uses electroluminescent panels.

Electroluminescent panelled me
My Ghost Ship Portal dress, 2011.

Sports: athletes are finding it ever harder to improve human record times. Basically it comes down to the minute shaving off of milliseconds from performances and so monitoring athletes via their vital signs is significant to gaining those new human achievements. Also, from the point of view of broadcasters, they would like to give us ever more exclusive visuals and sounds from the athletes experiences, plus to have reliable communicative technology to give the viewer an athlete’s perspective live and authentically. With the 2012 Olympics coming up the wish list for sports tech is really hotting up!

Textronics have some intriguing sport performance, safety and health monitoring wearables and e-textiles. These range from clothing which integrates sensing fibres for heart monitoring to polymers, with variable resistance properties that can behave as strain gauges, switches and sensors.

Medical and lifestyle: smart textiles and wearables are becoming able to deliver medicines more exactly, hygienically and topically, and to also monitor patients from home or traveling so patients are not confined to long periods of hospitalization or being indoors.

Public groups such as the Quantified Self are devoted to ‘self-knowledge through numbers’ via monitoring themselves. For example, to improve their health, make changes to their lifestyle or monitor their moods by keeping tabs on their personal data. They do this via a plethora of means such as medical monitors, gym equipment, weighing machines, plus keeping spreadsheets, notes and graphs.

An example of medical technology is the non-invasive wearable cardioverter-defibrillator, which can be worn by patients at risk of sudden heart failure, whilst their doctors assess their health and decide what future healthcare plans need to be made.

Hactivate: You make my <3 flutter “You make my <3 flutter" sensing mood wearable, 2011.

Eric Boyd’s Heart Spark is an LED PCB pendant which pulses to one’s heartbeat via a Polar gym heartbeat transmitter chest strap. Eric has made the Heart Spark open source, which has allowed me to study the circuit diagrams and code, which I have in turn hacked its code and attached to a heart-shaped proximity sensing pendant that I have made. Combining the two pendants, I have created a mood device – the proximity sensor detects when someone has entered the wearer’s space and lights up three LEDs on the Heart Spark, which meanwhile pulsates 3 LEDs to the wearer’s heartbeat. My next step is to add a way of logging the data from these moments and visualise it on a graph, to see if there are fluctuations in heartbeat when someone enters the wearer’s space. I’d also like to add a simple camera device to log the data against images. I call this new hack / wearable tech: “You make my <3 flutter”.

Another mood wearable of mine is “Yr in mah face” which uses a temperature sensor to detect fluctuations in heat from breath of someone entering one’s space or a fluctuation in the wearer’s body heat from mood or circumstance.

'Yr in mah face' temp-sensing t-shirt
“Yr in mah face” temperature sensing mood t-shirt, 2011.

Extreme environmental and military clothing: for example those working in extreme or dangerous environments need monitors to tell them when they’re safe or in danger, for example fire fighters, arctic workers, astronauts or those working with chemicals. Similar to the extreme environmental clothing needs, the military want the latest sensing tech in their clothes such as adrenalin sensing fabrics, monitoring, GPS, moisture and heat absorbing clothing.

At last week’s London Quantified Self meet-up, we heard about Hidalgo’s Equivital vital signs monitoring wearable, which was developed and tested by the US military for physiological monitoring in a military environment. It gathers signs of different human states and brings the data together for analysis, for example: how close soldiers were to heat stress, fatigue or no longer being functional.

So what’s next? Well, things are changing very quickly and I’ll probably have a different take on things in another six months (see some of my observations from Smart Fabrics Conf). What I do keep saying is that there’s still no killer app for wearable technology, so in that respect it’s still all to play for! I’m currently researching, keeping long lists of links and ideas, and of course a beady eye on what’s going on out there: in the Maker and Hacker communities, in the research labs, in funding and academia and in business of what we might want, call, use, need, wear and manufacture in terms wearable technology!

Opentech 2011, ULU London

Dorkbot talk Saul & Pete

(As usual) I had a fabulous time at this year’s Opentech 2011, a multi-stream conference that brings hacker, open source advocates, civil servants, open rights and other communities together to discuss, debate, chat and drink beer. It’s a great day of talks intersected with a fab geek social, it traditionally occurs at ULU in London.

Taken straight from their website intro: “OpenTech 2011 is an informal, low cost, one-day conference on slightly different approaches to technology, transport and democracy. Talks by people who work on things that matter, guarantees a day of thoughtful talks leading to conversations with friends.” It is certainly all these things.

Hard curves, soft electronics
Photo by @PSD

I gave a presentation titled “Hard Curves, soft electronics – code, tech and textiles” – at which I demonstrated some of my wearable technology pieces, specifically those made with LilyPad Arduino (an open source technology) sewable microcontrollers, sensing modules and conductive threads and textiles. These included Twinkle Starduino, I <3 0X0, Twinkle Tartflette and 'Yr In Mah Face', plus I mentioned some of my mbed work. I also discussed how e-texiles and the LilyPad help dismiss the idea that electronics are grey, sharp and cold. I also feel that the rise in tinkering with Arduino and e-textiles is a great way of encouraging girls / hobbyists / anyone to have fun and see beyond the stigma of electronics and coding being a dull and difficult to pursue.

Here's a link to my slides, plus one of the videos I showed during the presentation which demonstrated my ‘Yr In Mah Face‘ temperature / mood sensing t-shirt.

Talks I enjoyed this year included, a history and expose under the sheets of London dorkbot – ‘doing strange things with electricity’ from janitors Saul Albert and Peter Brownell. The session included some hilarious, bonkers and touching reminders from dorkbots of the past. The London dorkbot chapter was second to evolve, after New York being the first and has been going for nearly 10 years.

Paul Downey of OSHUG gave a lovely introduction to open source hardware, some examples of projects, events, plus various groups and people hacking tech.

Opentech: PSD on open hardware

Russ Garrett, spoke about the London Hackspace and gave a brief history of how it grew from small beginnings and venues into a very organised space today with at the time of the event, membership being nearly 300 people.

Open hardware questions: Russ

It was good to hear an update from Suw Charman-Anderson on Ada Lovelace Day: a celebration of women’s achievements in science, technology, engineering and maths – a subject very close to my heart.

Steve Goodwin gave a talk about digital archeology and the difficulties in creating and archiving retro technology. Steve concluded by showing his EMF emulator framework for a ZX 81.

A bit of light hearted and NSFW fun came from Jag who was inspired by his father’s knowledge of morse code, to play with it and come up with “an attempt to acquit extremely offensive & censured words using morse code, din & music”.

After the talks concluded, everyone made their way to the ULU bar to chat with friends old and new, plus quaff beer. Sadly the kitchen wasn’t open in the evening – I’m sure it would’ve done a roaring trade in its legendary curly fries. An awesome day – thanks to Sam Smith and all the lovely organisers for a very well executed day, the only shame is that I’ll have to wait till next year for the next one!

Ourduino PCBs
A couple of Ourduino’s beautiful PCBs.

Temperature sensing t-shirt (AKA: “Yr in mah face!”)

'Yr in mah face' temp-sensing t-shirt

At last weekend’s 24-hour Pachube Hackathon, I created an electronic wearable I wasn’t expecting to make! To clarify that statement, I intended to hack on a LoL Shield I’d recently soldered together (it has 126 LEDs = steady hands needed & much love to the soldering iron ;-)). Unfortunately, I’d mislaid an accelerometer to interact with the LEDs, so it was no go for that hack…

Spaghetti croc clip testing works!

After spreading out all my spare LilyPad Arduino components and kit from my toolbox on the table at Pachube Hackathon, I decided on a new hack – a temperature sensing t-shirt! I spent some time writing and debugging the code before it would happily compile in the Arduino IDE. I then tested the code by uploading it to the LilyPad and connecting all the modules together with crocodile clips, and yay it worked!

Creating my hack: big heart cat heads

I’m very interested in interactive wearables and so decided to create a t-shirt that would use loop poll Celsius data from a sensor on the t-shirt and average them, then visualise the results. The tshirt uses sewable LilyPad Arduino modules and conductive thread to sew all the connections together.

I didn’t have much time left, once I’d got the code to compile and uploaded it, then tested everything together with the crocodile clips, so the designing, cutting out from fabric and sewing all the fabric and components together with conductive thread was a manic rush. No prizes for tidy sewing and elegant design I’m afraid, but a prototype conceived designed and built is less than 24 hours!

Creating my hack: big heart cat heads

So here’s the amusing concept scenario… imagine you’re a shy and retiring geek like me, who might find themselves in a social situation, such as a loud, crowded bar. The temperature sensing t-shirt I’m wearing has two cat heads: one green – the colour of cool, calm collected cat – its LED eyes signaling temperatures of less than 27 degrees Celsius, if the wearer were to say have someone at close proximity talking loudly at them, the heat from their breath would push the sensor Celsius average over this point and the LEDs would turn off on the cool calm collected green cat head and come on, on the hot, red, angry coloured cat head!

Creating my hack: early conductive thread sewing

This would be a signal to whomever is causing the angry red cat’s LEDs eyes to light up, to back off “You’re in mah face” or perhaps if the wearer is hot and embarrassed, to have a nice sit down in a corner with a cool drink of lemonade.

Creating my hack: woo done in the nick of time!

Creating my hack: back view, negotiating tracks of conductive thread

But seriously, my t-shirt is a fun proof of concept, I’m very interested in how sensing tech such as temperature sensors can have wider and useful usage. For example, in a society where more of the population is living to a ripe old age, then smart wearables such as temperature and other sensing modules can help older or disabled people, who might need their health monitoring constantly, carry on living at home for longer and keep their independence. Also, I can think of various lifestyle and sporting uses, such as comfortable sports clothes that would also have reasons to track data, plus smart clothing for people who work with extreme temperatures, chemicals or in harsh environments.

Me and my hack - yay it works!

Pachube International Internet of Things Hackathon, London

Pachube hackathon

A fantastically fun 24-hour hackathon organised by Pachube at 01 zero-one, in Soho, London. The hackathon was open to software and hardware hacking, the Pachube APIs, were available to use (hackers could of course use any other APIs of their choosing). The Hackathon was also simultaneously happening in other cities around the globe including Zurich, New York, Lancaster and Eindhoven.

When I arrived at 2pm on Friday, 01 zero-one was packed and I had to squeeze my way through tables of geeks to find a spot to set up my laptop and listen to the opening announcements and demos.

Paul Tanner at Pachube hackathon

Demos included Nanode by Ken Boak, Arkessa’s GSM modems, Paul Tanner on mbed, Adrian McEwen and Michael Margolis were on hand to help with any Arduino questions.

Ken Boak - Nanode

I had intended to hack on an Arduino Duemilanove driven disco shirt using a LoL Shield I’d recently soldered together = a charlieplexed matrix of 126 LEDs! Unfortunately I’d mislaid an accelerometer that was key to the work, so I had to give up on that idea (for now), but cheered myself up by chatting to friends about their hacks and making some new friends.

I did some mulling and consolidating of bits and pieces of LilyPad Arduino components I had with me and decided to start a new project from scratch. My new hack was to be a sensing t-shirt, using LilyPad Arduino, temperature sensor and LEDs. The premise of the t-shirt was to detect if someone was too close to you for comfort, say in a bar and if they were so in your face that the heat from their breath or that you might feel uncomfortable and get hotter – either heat causing a Celsius testing script to sense a temperature over a certain level. This status was reflected on the shirt by two cat heads with LEDs, one green to indicate being cool, calm and collected, the other red and angry/alarmed! Basically the looping script takes a number of sample temperature and averages them to find whether or not the situation is getting horribly hot – this is indicated in the LEDs of the appropriate colour cat head’s eyes lighting up!

Spaghetti croc clip testing works!

Creating my hack: big heart cat heads

On Friday evening I put the code together and spent a while debugging it to get it to compile. On Saturday morning I connected all the components with crocodile clips to test the code with the hardware – luckily it worked = hurrah! I spent a tense time during the run up till the presentations designing how the shirt should look, working out where the components would go, cutting-up fabric and sewing frantically with conductive thread!

Creating my hack: big heart cat heads

I was still sewing my hack together when the presentations started, which incurred some rather rushed stitching and some rubbish looking conductive thread bridges (to avoid shorts) on the back of the fabric!

I think I finally finished sewing about 10 mins before the end of presentations and gave a rather on-the-fly talk about my work as I hadn’t really had time to contemplate what I was going to say, but luckily my hack worked for the presentation and relief ensued.

Me and my hack - yay it works!


There were some great hacks and some well deserved winners, such as the Waving Kitty, Marvin the Paranoid LaptopBot, Display Cabinet, Nanode hacks and an umbrella that turned lights on and off! I’m looking forward to hearing how the hacks progress…

Presentations: Sarah's Marvin the paranoid laptop bot

Hack winners: Dan, Tim & Ben

Sadly, it was all too soon time to go home, but I had a fabulous time, the welcome and hospitality from Pachube and 01 zero-one was fantastic – cheers guys!

Presentations: Umbreller

Presentations: Lucky Cat hack