Thursday, October 30, 2008

Smart tapestries

Along with my collaborators, our ideas about the use of smart textiles are beginning to find root. We are going to work on a number of tapestry-like objects which react and change. In one, the tapestry will present a kind of physiological portrait of a person, in another, the tapestry will react to being touched in a variety of ways. In a third initiative, we are going to be constructing organic-looking forms that react and change shape over time. All of these are initiatives being developed in support of kids with disabilities, to provide them with environments that are more responsive to their often limited physical abilities than are the environments we usually have around us.

Some of these ideas may also be eventually incorporated into garments. We have now obtained some workable samples of the Nitinol shape-changing wire and we are progressing on the development of some simple examples of the wire in operation. At the same time, we are developing designs for more ambitious pieces. Along with the conducting thread, the Lilypad computer board, devices such as heartbeat monitors, accelerometers, and so on, as well as LEDs and fiber optics, the projects are beginning to take shape. It is all very exciting!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Multiple DIY convergences - a revolution in progress

I have to admit that after poking around in several emerging fields of activity, I am stunned to discover how many environments are becoming available to the average tinkerer. The convergence of electronics and computer programming with textiles and garments is only one among several. Sewing as a hobby requires a modest amount of monetary investment, depending on how one goes about things. If one is given a machine or buys one used, works with inexpensive fabrics or by breaking down second hand clothes and re-making them differently, one can manage with costs of the order of about 100$, what you might call a "stripped down budget". If one buys fabrics, a sewing machine and a serger, one is operating within a budget from closer to 1000$ albeit over a certain amount of time, which I would call a "moderate budget".

So-called "soft electronics", that is, electronic components that can be incorporated into textiles and garments, cost about 100$ to get a minimum of materials, and several hundreds of dollars to be operational in this regard. So this places soft electronics within the range of a moderate DIY sewing budget.

Interestingly, the use of RFID technologies (smart chips that emit an ID signal that can be picked up by an appropriately designed antenna) is in this same price range. Today, one can buy a receiver for about 20-40$ and transmitters at costs of from 3$ to 20$. So for an investment of a hundred dollars, one can create a small environment within which one can sense sensors installed into objects or fixed into the physical environment.

Another interesting technological capability in an only slight higher monetary bracket is amateur robotics. With the emergence of Lego's Mindstorms robotics platform, one can build operational robots for an initial investment of about 400$, with very little additional investment required (unless one wants more than one robot).

Hence for what I am calling a modest budget (say 500$ to about 2000$), one can develop smart garments with RFID scanning capabilities, robots with RFID capabilites, and the beginnings of convergences between these two areas (i.e. garments that provide certain robot-like capabilities). This is amazing.

Technical knowhow for none of these areas requires more than some basic electronics knowledge (I took classes in electronics over 30 years ago, and this is enough to make sense of the technology) and some basic programming capability. There are also tons of online tutorials to help out with detailed step-by-step instructions to get the "newbie" through the hoops.

As a result, I think we are going to see a revolution in creative DIY projects in the next few years, as these different environments cross-fertilize each other and we see new ideas being dreamed up and tested very rapidly.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Diverse news

I've nothing spectacular to report today, just lots of bits and pieces.

I received my LilyPad Arduido Deluxe Kit in the mail late last week. I was really excited when I unpacked it, especially given that it's got a fully programmable computer chip that you can sew into clothes, but the kit came without the USB link which is necessary to program the motherboard. Apparently the LilyPads are selling like hotcakes and they're having problems with keeping supply up. Then, just yesterday, the link arrived. Unfortunately, the uploading doesn't seem to work - it gives me an error message. So I still don't have the thing working yet.

Still, I've got a lot more ideas about what to do with it when I do get it working. Things like displaying "emoticons" that express feelings, or having a light go off when my phone, buried in its pocket rings. I'd really like a "soft phone" but I guess that's still a ways off (perhaps not so long, though), or having an indicator to tell me that I'm slouching.

Also, thinking about displaying lights on clothes got me interested in black outfits. On the weekend, I went down to the fabric stores on Queen St. West (Toronto) and found some really nice black cotton fabrics, one almost velour-like that I plan to turn into my first pair of pants, and another semi-transparent with black vertical stripes (black on black), that I could turn into a shirt. A totally black outfit seems like it would be really cool to make. So even though I started thinking this way as a background for lighting up the clothes, now I'm totally into thinking and making "black".

Monday, October 13, 2008

E-Sewing, First Steps

The other envelopes form Aniomagic arrived, with some additional esewing parts : The round dials are sensors that switch when ambient light or temperature increases above a particular level, the rectangulary boxes in the middle contain LED sequins in two different colors, and the black round items are "velcro switches". I've left a tooney in the photo so one can get an idea of the size of these components ... the sequins are absolutely minute!

Using this in combination with the earlier kit, I finally got around to sewing "my first circuit", shown first as is, and then when the "push switch" is pressed. I was worried that the circuit wouldn't close - I really didn't sew very carefully, but even with my sloppy work, the circuit did work properly!

It's nothing to write home about yet, but now I'm ready to incorporate these components into something wearable...

I have some ideas about that :

- use a magnetic compass sensor (I've seen one of these somewhere) and light up on the N-E-S-W cross the appropriate lights depending on which direction one is facing - could even use a scene that incorporates symbolic elements associated with each direction and light up parts of the relevant scence
- light up different constellations from the zodiac at different times, or maybe when one meets someone
- light up an LED to remind oneself to turn on a light when the ambient light is too low to read be (!)
- light up initials

More another time...