Category Archives: ideas

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 ❤ 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 ❤ 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!


Thinking Digital 2011, Sage Gateshead: Day 1

Thinking Digital 2011 was the forth annual melding of minds shaped into a conference that brings together what’s new in innovative ideas, technology and thoughts on life in the digital age. It’s run by the awesome Herb Kim and his Codeworks team and is held at the Sage, Gateshead, Tyne and Wear.

TDC: Sage view

The conference is popular with thinkers, scientists, makers, entrepreneurs and academics, because it has a slightly different slant to it than your usual tech conference, but through the choice of speakers and topics, it pulls the audience into the conversation, the subjects are not arbitrary, but are relevant to many.

On reflection, last year’s conference seemed to surround the theme of ‘data’: your data, my data, our data – data as a commodity. Richard Titus, who spoke at last year’s conference declared ‘Data is the new oil’ which struck a chord with many of the attendees. This year’s Thinking Digital, for me, was all about sensing things whether that be health, resonating with others, brainwaves, robots or campaigns.

There’s rather a lot to talk about and even cutting my notes down loads, I’ve far too much to say – anyways, I’m splitting it into two posts: day one and day two…

I’m going to start with Walter de Brouwer, as I create wearable sensing technology that responds to input, so his talk really resonated with me.

TDC: Walter de Brouwer on medical treatment futures

Walter De Brouwer is the CEO of OLPC Europe; the European Branch of the One Laptop per Child Initiative, discussed the issues surrounding the future of healthcare and how as patients and relatives we can take charge of our own health. He spoke passionately about his personal catalyst for this – a traumatic experience involving his child enduring a stay in intensive care. How the experience of watching machines and nurses logging numerical data over time starts to familiarize the watching relatives with which measurements signify good news and which do not. Walter asked, ‘but why do we only take number measurements when we are dying?’ Indeed, we should be steadily ‘life caching’ medical data ourselves because the medical records our GPs keep are just a punctuated data stream- i.e. they’re very sketchy because they’re not regularly updated and compared, plus are also passed through different doctors over time. He stated ‘ the best way to create the future is to prevent it ‘ – meaning look after yourself now and invest in your personal data to interpret the signs of illness before they happen. Which I feel is pretty sound advice actually, seeing as most major illness’ are only usually picked up by doctors when they are in an advanced stage and hard to treat.

Having access to so much information on the web the patient is becoming a consumer and the do it yourself healthcare movement is getting bigger. We now have access to so many data capturing devices we can keep log of our own health readings, plus if would be totally logical to share and compare this data with our friends to find out for ourselves why some people are happier, healthier and have more energy than others – comparing lifestyles, what we eat, how long we sleep, etc. There is already a worldwide movement leading the way in this self-logging lifestyle, that’s The Quantified Self movement, whose mantra is ‘self knowledge through numbers’ and they log everything they can – for example: blood pressure, weight, exercise, cholesterol, heart rate, arousal and sleep patterns.


Walter fully believes that the globalization of private medicine is unstoppable now and we can shop for the best practitioners who have the least patients, most time and do all your health running around for you – such as booking scans and regular health checks. This is all very nice, but relies on you having the income to fund this lifestyle, as it gets very expensive! This way of running healthcare probably works only for the top earners and of course probably isn’t inclusive to people on benefits or those on low incomes.

Anyways, if you have the income there is a plethora of choices open to ‘Cybercondriacs’ and full body scans are very popular, of course the price depends on where you go to get it done but ranges between 100-700 dollars, India being the cheapest place to go right now. But remember, as mentioned above you can keep your own records and use sensing apps to log them, though the challenge will be how do we and doctors analyse and hang on to all this exponentially generated data? Walter suggests perhaps not in The Cloud: ‘ The Cloud is like a public toilet for your records, you don’t know who’s been there before you!”

So in conclusion, Walter feels your health will become a number – the data is free to gather, but the interpretation by your doctor is not! As doctors begin to prescribe apps rather than meds for health they will become overloaded with data and we’ll need systems to cope with it all. Walter suggested that we may end up with systems similar to an already existing car maintenance system in the US called OnStar – which is a call centre diagnostic type of affair. Ultimately, we are responsible for our own health and should look at our lifestyles and those of our friends to compare what is good for us while we wait for someone to invent a 21st Century version of the Star Trek Tricorder – a complete diagnostic device!

Erin McKean has been a dictionary evangelist for 18 years and is now a founder of Wordnik, an online dictionary that hopes to redefine how we view and use dictionaries. Wordnik has the tag line / definition as ‘Wordnik is a place for all the words, and everything known about them’. It’s a place to find and log words and not just one definition, there are many ways to define and tag words, including sentences, images and statistics. Looking at the Community page, I find tons of words defined by lists such as new words, recent comments, recently favourited, random, trending and previous words of the day.

TDC: Erin McKean on online dictionary Wordnik

During her presentation she offered her thoughts on defining dictionaries and word usage, Erin introduced us to the term ‘skeumorph’, which is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “an object or feature which imitates the design of a similar artifact in another material” – to illustrate Erin showed us plastic garden chairs that were copies of retro wooden chairs which included a wood grain pattern on the plastic! Erin took us through the pros and cons of using dictionaries in both paper and digital form, such as the problem of new words not showing up quick enough and in the realm of learning she informed us that humans learn words by using them in a sentence, rather than by looking them up. I’ll be interested to hear what people do with the Wordnik API. PS, I was very much admiring Erin’s lovely dresses, so was very happy to find her blog A Dress A Day 🙂

Conrad Wolfram, founder and CEO of Wolfram Research discussed the notion of ‘computation for everyone’ – where computation meets knowledge and is democratised so that everyone can use it. He’d like to see governments and organisations make their data more accessible and active online rather than just in papers.


He’s keen to do this by creating new ways that we can visualise data and information and has come up with a computable documentation format (CDF), which uses techniques to show live data and make it more interesting to the viewer. You can play with examples of this on the Wolfram Demonstrations Project.

TDC: Conrad Wolfram on live data visualisation

Conrad is also passionate about maths and other STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) tuition in education and is leading a computer-based maths education summit in London later this year at the Royal Institution – wish I could get a ticket!

Nancy Duates of Duarte Design
showed us via some examples of her studies into cinema, how storytelling is the best way to communicate an idea in a presentation or speech. Her slides showed examples of how using a story framework (visualized as a square wave) showed how verbally alternating between an obstacle and then resolution (or negative then positive) sound bite resonates with the audience and builds up empathy – equating to persuasion = transformation with the listener.

TDC: Nancy Duarte on storytelling

She also talked about injecting passion into stories “when you say ‘I’ve an idea’ – you’re saying you want to change the world!” and noting how we physically react to others when we hear a story. Her three-point framework included the following stages:

1. Likeable hero
2. Encounters roadblocks
3. Emerges transformed

TDC: Nancy Duarte on storytelling

During Nancy’s two-year study of storytelling she discovered various frameworks including Freytag’s dramatic 5 point story structure which emerges as: exposition / rising action / climax / falling action / denouncement and how ‘tacking’ (sailing metaphor) your story backwards and forwards holds the attention of your audience. She analysed two powerful presentations to show how her square wave theory works: one by Steve Jobs, launching iPhone and the other Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech – each showed the square wave alternating between a downside/problem and a glowing resolution (what is, what could be). I found her talk fascinating and will definitely look back on it and consider her techniques when I next have a presentation to write.

Ewan McIntosh, CEO, NoTosh Ltd, told the story of the SNP historic election win this year which he co-directed, and they did it via a system that was designed to stop this happening! So how did the SNP win it? When the campaign started the SNP was 15 points behind Labour, but when it ended the SNP was 18 points ahead. They did it by using a ruthlessly planned strategy, much of it using digital media.
He told us “we don’t do enough listening in digital media” and went on to give us some of his tips on engaging voters of all ages, including:

1. Have a strategy – with detail, pace, leadership and be agile – “You don’t need to have a ‘plan’, or a ‘to do list’ but a strategy”

2. Share the same message – be consistent and have a meeting every morning and agree what’s going to be said that day – share the message and make it understandable by people

3. Learn to listen – find out what they like, don’t like and what motivates them -stay relentlessly positive online

TDC: Ewan McIntosh on SNP campaign

“So did digital win votes? Yes it did!” Ewan went on to explain that the ultimate reason for campaigning online was to get people doing stuff offline, which worked and it’s changed the way governments listen to people and that digital is absolutely key to stalking ambition.

Ewan summed up with ‘the SNP campaign has changed not only Scotland’s place in world, but also how government engages with people and how digital can be used as a force for change”. As someone who has done a lot of high-profile project management over the years for the BBC, I was really interested in how Ewan’s strategy panned out across the campaign.

Heather Knight of Marilyn Monrobot creates live robot theatre performances and is a researcher at Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute. Heather started by letting Data her Nao robot introduce her and do an amusing comedy performance, which included a little dance at the end.

TDC: Data

I couldn’t help but look up the Nao robot and discovered it is programmable in C++, C, Python, Urbi, .Net languages. Interestingly, it’s runs on Linux OS, but is cross platform compatible, and I read Aldebaran Robotics are going to open source some of Nao’s code in 2011 and for those who want their own a public version is aimed to be released in 2012. I noted in the Q & A that Heather was asked how much a Nao robot would cost, to which she replied about 12,000 Euros.

Heather’s other work has included a touch sensitive ‘Sensate Bear’ for use in hospitals to help understand non-verbal communication via touch.
She is interested in how socially accepted robots can be integrated into society and has done work with her performing robot in public areas to analyse how the public reacts to their performance and in turn how the robot’s personality can be tweaked to work with humans – the goal being to help machines understand human traits such as charisma and humour.

TDC: Heather Knight & Data

Heather also has a portfolio of digital art and is organising The Robot Film Festival in New York in July 2011.

It was a nice touch for Heather to finish on a story about her work on the epic Ok Go ‘This Too Shall Pass’ video, which the audience really enjoyed + a few added factoid morsels about the making of too. I enjoyed hearing from a female engineer very much and would like to hear more about Heather’s research with human / robot reactions, and also her digital artworks.

So that’s it, my epic and rambling round-up of some of Thinking Digital’s day one presentations and talks. I’m going to have a rest now before I launch into day two!

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 ❤ 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!

Upcoming: Smart Fabrics 2011, London

I’m always on the lookout for interesting events that’ll help me develop my work and next week I’ll be going to the 7th annual Smart Fabrics conference in London on 4-6th April. I’m pretty excited about this as I’m hoping to see lots of innovation in fabric tech and inspiration for my future wearable electronics and artworks. What would be particuarly useful is some info on advancements in the durability of conductive threads, fabric and printed circuitry, plus I’ll be looking out for the latest news on sensors and lighting for wearables.

Electroluminescent me

Can’t wait to see some new creative applications and how e-textiles are being used in areas I haven’t really looked into yet such as medical and space tech and I’m hoping to be wowed by new tech in R&D and smart fabrics I’ll see in the future.

I’ll blog as much as I can and a try to find a Twitter stream for the event!

Conductive velcro has arrived!

Twinkle Tartiflette – an Arduino driven interactive word/music artwork

LilyPad Arduino is a great platform for rapid prototyping, for my standalone interactive art projects and wearable artworks. It’s also a fun way to learn about electronics and programming.

Here’s how I created Twinkle Tartiflette, an interactive artwork, using various LilyPad modules connected with conductive thread.
My inspiration came from a Stylophone Beat Box that I recently purchased as a present and had a play with. I pondered how one would go about making an interactive artwork using LilyPad components.

I decided that I wanted to combine words, image and sound into an interactive experience, brought to life by touching the words with a stylus. I began to think about how I’d build this and firstly decided on re-using the frequencies for notes worked out for a favourite ditty, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, that I’d used in another artwork. I would transfer the first two verses word for word onto felt stars, one star for each verse.

Sewing Twinkle Tartiflette

There are 6 notes in the 2 verses so I needed to map out a schema for the conductive thread to pass from the words to the Lilypad, joining each word to the right note pin on the LilyPad – being careful to select conveniently located pins.
First I cut out 2 star shapes and began sewing the words onto them, not being an experienced embroiderer this wasn’t easy or terribly pretty.

After about a week of evenings I had two stars with conductive thread sewn words in the right order. I was mindful to sew the words carefully so frayed thread did not touch and cause any shorts – fabric glue is good for sticking down frayed thread and keeping close knots apart.

With the word stars completed it was time to deploy the main sewing schema – I’d mapped notes to the words and then words back to pins on the LilyPad.

Twinkle Tartiflette schema

After an intensive couple of weeks of sewing evenings later, I thought I’d sewn all the words to the right notes and pins, also adding buzzer and battery modules. There were some interesting insulation/bridging issues to be solved between the various paths of conductive thread, but I was ready to extract code ideas from my brain to see if it would compile!

The code I have written uses the speaker module to produce simple musical notes from connecting to the words with a stylus. I originally used a chart to match frequencies to the different notes.

Sewing Twinkle Tartiflette with conductive thread

With code loaded to the Lilypad, via an FTDI breakout board, it’s time to test – annoyingly there was a problem! The buzzer was not playing notes correctly, after some thinking and testing with a multimeter, croc clips and a single resistor – a solution was concluded – I’d need to add some resistors.

Unconnected the circuit is connected to high, but when the stylus touches a word it creates a simple circuit through the resistor and pulls it to low, but I needed some resistivity in-between. Looking through a ton of resistors 10k ohm seemed like a good fit, but where and how to add them was another question! A small LilyPad protoboard I had was just the job to solder the resistors to. I have six notes, so the protoboard was just right – I only had 5 x 10k ohm resistors, but found another resistor that was near enough to work (reading up later I found out that 20K pull-up resistors are built into the Atmega chip that can be accessed from software, so I didn’t really need need to add the resistors if I’d known that – hey ho, lesson learnt for next time!).

Soldering resistors to the protoboard

After some soldering, I had some more complex routing of conductive thread to do for the resistors on the protoboard. When testing I discovered I’d fix0red one problem, but had found another to debug! Earlier, I said to be mindful of the pins – I had accidentally connected to pin 13 which is the LED pin and has it’s own resistor which is set too low for this project. This showed up in resistance testing with the multimeter.

The fix for the wrong pin incurred some more unpicking and re-routing of conductive thread. I used an analogue pin as it was nearer and the least hassle to route to, this pin change required to be reflected in the code. Finally I decided the best thing to use for a stylus is a crocodile clip – which worked a treat.

Testing resistance with a multimeter

After all that, yay Twinkle Tartiflette lives! All that remained to do is tidy up the sewing, ensuring there are no trailing bits of conductive thread to cause shorts and gluing down anything looking like it was going to stray or come undone with fabric glue. Lots of lessons learnt, but hurrah!

Twinkle Tartiflette finished

Twinkle Tartiflette & Rain

I’ve made two videos for your delectation below – the first (00:44 secs) is a quick demo of me playing Twinkle Tartiflette.

This second video is an in-depth (05:40 mins) explanation of how I made TT, plus examples of debugging along the way – hope you enjoy!

Here is my code – you can use it via a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license & I’d love to know if you do!

* Rainycat’s LilyPad stylo style: sound used to power Twinkle Tartiflette
* Uses a LilyPad speaker module to produce simple musical notes from touching words to the song
* For a chart of the frequencies of different notes see:

int NotePinC6 = 0; // words connected to play note C6 analogue pin!
int NotePinG6 = 12; // words connected to play note G6
int NotePinA6 = 11; // words connected to play note A6
int NotePinF6 = 10; // words connected to play note F6
int NotePinE6 = 9; // words connected to play note E6
int NotePinD6 = 8; // words connected to play note D6
int speakerPin = 3; // speaker connected to digital pin 3

// A note in one octave is twice the frequency of the same note in the octave
// below. We define here the frequencies of the notes in octave 8. To get
// notes in lower octaves, we just divide by two however many times.

#define NOTE_C8 4186
#define NOTE_CSHARP8 4434
#define NOTE_D8 4698
#define NOTE_DSHARP8 4978
#define NOTE_E8 5274
#define NOTE_F8 5587
#define NOTE_FSHARP8 5919
#define NOTE_G8 6271
#define NOTE_GSHARP8 6644
#define NOTE_A8 7040
#define NOTE_ASHARP8 7458
#define NOTE_B8 7902

// This is an array of note frequencies. Index the array essentially by note
// letter multiplied by two (A = 0, B = 2, C = 4, etc.). Add one to index for
// “sharp” note. Where no sharp note exists, the natural note is just
// duplicated to make this indexing work. The play() function below does all
// of this for you 🙂

int octave_notes[14] = {

// Arduino runs this bit of code first, then repeatedly calls loop() below. So
// all initialisation of variables and setting of initial pin modes (input or
// output) can be done here.

void setup() {
pinMode(13, INPUT); // make sure 13 is high impedance

//pinMode(NotePinC6, INPUT); — analogue pin automatically input
pinMode(NotePinG6, INPUT);
pinMode(NotePinA6, INPUT);
pinMode(NotePinF6, INPUT);
pinMode(NotePinE6, INPUT);
pinMode(NotePinD6, INPUT); // sets the ledPin to be an intput
pinMode(speakerPin, OUTPUT); // sets the speakerPin to be an output


// Arduino will run this over and over again once setup() is done.

void loop()

// special case hack for this pin:
if (analogRead(NotePinC6) < 256) {
play(speakerPin, "C6", 50);
if (digitalRead(NotePinG6) == LOW) {
play(speakerPin, "G6", 50);
if (digitalRead(NotePinA6) == LOW) {
play(speakerPin, "A6", 50);
if (digitalRead(NotePinF6) == LOW) {
play(speakerPin, "F6", 50);
if (digitalRead(NotePinE6) == LOW) {
play(speakerPin, "E6", 50);
if (digitalRead(NotePinD6) == LOW) {
play(speakerPin, "D6", 50);

// ————————————————————————-

// To produce a tone, this function toggles the speaker output pin at the
// desired frequency (in Hz). It calculates how many times to do this to
// produce a note of the desired length (in milliseconds).

void beep(unsigned char speakerPin, int frequency, long duration)

int i;
long delayAmount = (long)(1000000/frequency);
long loopTime = (long)((duration*1000)/(delayAmount*2));

//for (i = 0; i = ‘A’ && note[i] = ‘0’ && note[i] >’ operator is a useful shorthand that (for integers
// >= 0) basically translates to “divide by two this many
// times”, so we will use that:

frequency = frequency >> (8 – octave_number);

// Actually play the note!
beep(speakerPin, frequency, duration);

Thinking Digital Conference 2010, Sage Gateshead

Thinking Digital 2010 was a blast… It was an excellent two days of insightful, informative, eclectic and mind-bending talks around digital or technology related subjects. It’s one of the few conferences that I attend knowing I will do my best to attend most of the talks – as the quality of speakers is fantastic!

Apart from the talks there was an expo of business stands, plus cupcakes and treats, masseurs for weary delegates, speaker lunches, bands, parties and dinners – we were very well looked after! See my previous post for a write up on the pre-conference Power Arduino workshop.

Here’s a quick round-up of many of the talks I went to, I won’t fit them all in otherwise you’ll be left reading something very long from my 16 pages of notes!

Joi Ito – CEO of Creative Commons
Spoke passionately about sharing and open source projects within the realms of business and innovation. He advised us not to follow trends but to “question authority and think for yourself”. How giving stuff away for free is incredible, how most of the internet is run by amateurs who are not paid “open source lowers the cost of failure and drives innovation: – “99% of open source projects on Sourceforge are a complete failure, but it’s worth it to eak out that 1%”

Documentally – Christian Payne – Photojournalist
Gave a fab talk on the life of a backpack journalist who has used social media as a platform for sharing his photos, audioboos, videos and stories from Iraq and Pakistan – “Social technology is like sex. It’s fun to talk & read about but you can’t truly comprehend it until you do it”. He took us on an entertaining trip via stories of his exploits and how his kit has changed over the years, but admits that all you really need these days is a smart phone, plus he mentioned the importance of backing up data “My data is backed up in 3 places, data just vanishes, especially when crossing borders!” He left us with a URL to some great links

Jon Drori – Changing Media
Gave two brilliant talks. Firstly, a run down on 23 of the classic pitfalls of business relationships, including nuggets: “avoid understanding your audience or what they want and how they work” and “never confuse a neat idea with a strategy”.

Followed on day two by a sum-up of compelling experiences – they were surmised as: Defined, Fresh, Accessible, Immersive, they are Significant and are Transformative. He also informed us about Florence nightingale was a pioneer of data visualization, as she made the link between people dying and lack of hygiene and distributed this information in diagrams – making it accessible.

Don Levy – Sony Pictures
Gave an interesting talk on the tech behind cinema, including a sneak peak at the Alice in Wonderland DVD extras. He talked about losing yourself in the imaginations of other people – the magic of movies.

On Sony & open source, “We’ve now 5 open source projects – it lowers the cost of learning and innovation although we still do things with proprietary software. But we put a lot of things out into the open source community to share and develop” – he didn’t say, but it would be cool to find out what those projects are.

He went on to say, “there’s never been a better time for entertainment the possibilities are virtually endless” and “we’re now able to do something on one pc that it took a whole building to do up until recently”.

Andy Hobsbawm – DoTheGreenThing
Talked about the challenges his company faced in reframing sustainability and driving behavior to make recycling desirable – via the DoTheGreenThing campaign. Also, initiatives such as Mixmag’s Walkcast to aid the enjoyment of walking and Glove Love – a lost glove = a double throw away!

Rory Sutherland – Advertarian
Kicked off his humorous talk by mentioning ‘engineering envy’ – people who wish they were as efficient as machinery, though most human behaviour doesn’t follow scientific law! He mentioned how paying people to do creative tasks, just turns creativity into work. Also that humans tend to disproportionate the value of something because it is rare – such as rhino horn. Same goes for cheap goods and services: coach travel and frozen food – two things that a cheap and ecologically good, but seen as cheap and inferior. The question for marketeers is, how do you make these things cool? “You can create huge amounts of consumer delight from marketing some fantastically trivial ideas” for example the Virgin cruet set had ‘pinched from virgin upper class’ engraved on them – “you’ll remember this far longer than whether you went on a 747 or not”. He urged us to looks at old things in a new way and add appreciation to what already exists and introduced the ‘Diamond Shreddie’ to the TDC audience, (a marketing campaign in Canada, increasing sales), which became a bit of a meme for the rest of the conference.

Tom Wujec – Marshmallow Challenge
Asked ‘what fosters technology?’ He told us about the ‘marshmallow challenge’ – a team building exercise where the aim is to build a structure with items such as spaghetti and string, then balance a marshmallow on the top. He described various personalities and their approaches to this, including that recent business school graduates do worst as they cheat and fight. But, the people who do best are kindergarten kids as they achieve the exercise via play and enjoy it – “they don’t seek power to achieve the goal”. Tom finished with the warning that “every project has it’s own marshmallow – the assumption is that a marshmallow is light and fluffy, but it’s not – don’t overlook it!”

Tom also spoke on day two on advancements in technology and the step progression from blue sky to ubiquitous: “impossible > impractical > possible > expected > required”. He showed us a couple of examples, such as printers that can reproduce themselves and machines that will scan our feet, then weave and build shoes for us while we wait!

Brian Solis – Futureworks
Tackled the issue of privacy and social media and introduced the Klout website to us where you can find your credit score for the social web.

Luis Von Ahn – Professor at Carnegie Mellon University
After introducing himself by asking “You know Captcha? Do you hate it? Well, I invented that…” Luis took us through the story of Captcha – the system that uses randomly distorted words and is used by many sites to test that you’re really a human entering data. His story wound around online polls, humourous and unfortunate combinations of words that have appeared randomly together, plus an insight into the spam sweatshops that try to beat Captcha.

Roughly 200 million Captchas that take roughly 10 seconds are typed every day, so Luis wanted to find a way to use all this human effort for good. He came up with Re-Capture, a way of using the system to get people to read words from old books that computers can’t recognize from OCR. Roughly 80 million words solved a day, equals about 4 million books translated per year!

Robert Lang – From flapping birds to space telescopes

We were taken on a charming journey centered on origami, via history, maths and computer aided origami design. We heard about how paper-folding patterns can be transferred to helping with problem solving for scientists and engineers looking for clever ways to get around size and logistical problems. For example, in space equipment the umbrella pattern has been used for a 5 metre collapsible space telescope, plus solar sails, in other uses: airbags for cars and medical stents that fold up small enough to go through an artery and then unfold.

Julian Treasure – This is a journey into sound

“Over the next 20 mins I will transform your relationship with sound…” was the opener from Julian, who took us on a whirlwind tour. From telling us that sound is the first thing you sense, in your mother’s heartbeat, to anecdotally being the last to go. How we suppress sound every day, such as traffic, muzak in shops & noise in public areas, but also how sound affects you physiologically – it influences heart rate, brings on fight or flight reaction, can change our mood through music and birdsong or waves, and how we move away from unpleasant noise. Sound affects our cognitive process – we have an auditory bandwidth, for example office workers find it hard to work and productivity goes down 66% in open plan offices. Music has been shown in case studies influence our actions, such as what we buy via sound association and birdsong in service stations has been shown to make people calmer.

Julian left us with a sound action list:
– listen consciously
– protect your ears
– train your voice
– befriend silence
– respect music
– design soundscapes

Robert McKee – Storylogue
Ran one of his legendary Story Seminars pre the main conference, told us there’s “no such thing as an innocent story – it’s a story that is embedded in emotional experience” and “There is no fundamental difference between cutting someone off in traffic and cutting them off by the head”. He went on to tell us that “the mind organizes life as a story, not as a list of facts – puts the past into a story including planning, preparing, a coherent story with a beginning middle and end”.

He ended with “if you don’t believe in yourself then use the delete key!”.

Jer Thorpe – Wired magazine
Gave an interesting talk on data visualization and Processing with some lovely imagery. When he first started playing with Arduino he wasn’t sure what to do with it, so talked to his 10 year-old self and decided to create an alarm for when aliens landed with added wireless functionality!

David Siegel – Pull
I attended both his talk and lunch where he discussed the importance of the semantic web and searching for data such as the difference in results you’ll get between Google and Wolfram Alpha. He touched on rethinking your relationship to information and how we will soon be at 5 billion connected devices which will be capable of pumping out our information automatically, growing exponentially. He suggested that “every time you hear the word semantic substitute the word unambiguous”. David predicts that in the future we will move from “push to pull” and have ‘data lockers’ to store our information in various levels depending on relationship, e.g. family, purchasing, work, etc – it was hotly debated who might be the trusted keepers of these! He closed his talk with the message “Tweet this: what we do online, and how we do it, *matters*”. Oh yes, thanks very much for a copy of your book ‘Pull’!

Richard TitusFriction: Good, evil, necessity or fuel?
Gave a talk about ‘friction’ – “Friction is the evil of all motion” a quote from Fear of Physics and went on to give us various examples and lessons: ‘Privacy is NOT secrecy’: ‘Secrecy is almost non-existent today’. Richard also gave probably the most re-tweeted quote of the day “Data is the new Oil” which has already appeared on a badge!

Tom Scott – Geek Comedian
Gave us a cautionary tale about social networking and flashmobs out of control, plus also showed us his Evil app that reveals easily obtainable phone numbers from unsuspecting people on Facebook.

Jodi Forlizzi – interaction designer, Kinetic Fonts
Jodi took us on a tour of kinetic type – type that moves and allows expressive capabilities. Presently powerful but unexploited, she told us it has a lot of potential, but needs more study and more tools to support it. Here’s an example of how it can bring to life literature or quotes from a film such as Pulp Fiction

Ken Banks – FrontlineSMS
Told us his story of his software business and FrontlineSMS projects – for example, enabling communication in third world Africa in areas that don’t have internet connectivity. An example is software for laptops and mobiles, which allows simple text and image communication for non-profit organizations, doctors and human rights campaigners in dangerous situations. Another system used a mobile phone for blood smear diagnosis.

Big thanks to Herb Kim & the Codeworks team for a great 3 days at Thinking Digital 2010 – looking forward to next year’s conference already!