During New York Social Media Week 2014, soft electronics rocked the spotlight. During Tech In Motion’s Wearable Technology Fashion Show, models showed off accessories and clothing that lit up, matched moods, and collected or displayed personal data.
The softer side of wearable technology hides LED lights, battery packs, electronic devices, and even actual computers like the Raspberry Pi, in the folds of clothing fabric. Designers stitch up their concepts—part computer, part craft—with conductive thread. This isn’t just wearable tech—it’s sewable tech.
In a world where Google Glass and Pebble rule the day, it's easy to overlook their softer cousins just over the horizon. It’s not their heyday yet, but they’re clearly on the way.
The Soft Spot Of Soft Wearables
Sensoree's GER Mood Sweater.
Look no further than Fashion Week. London-based CuteCircuit debuted its line of glowing iPhone-controlled dresses and suits. CuteCircuit, which has already made waves by designing high-tech gowns for celebrities, is the first wearable electronics company to present a line at Fashion Week.
The fashion industry is clearly warming to wearable tech. Recent examples include Intel’s partnership with fashion house Opening Ceremony to create a "smart bracelet" and Fitbit’s collaboration with Tory Burch to make chic versions of its fitness tracker.
So far, though, much of that activity involves "hard" accessories like bracelets. Actual clothing items, like Sporty Supahero, a light-up cycling jacket, or body metric tracker Hexoskin, are still highly expensive prototypes. What gives?
“It’s hard to make wearable tech washable,” said Kristin Neidlinger of Sensoree. “So far, electronics in fabric are tricky and delicate.”
Don't Wash Me
Neidlinger designed a series of Mood Sweaters for the Wearable Technology Fashion Show, which are designed to help people with sensory processing disorders wear their feelings on the outside; the sweater is designed to change color to reflect the wearer’s mood. But since they’re netted with LED lights and conductive thread, they are currently dry-clean only.
There’s also the issue of battery packs, which can be large and unwieldy, sometimes creating an unsightly lump.
“It’d be great to take a CuteCircuits outfit apart to see where they hide the battery pack,” said Leslie Birch of Geisha Teku. Birch’s fashion show creation, the Florabrella, is a Blade Runner inspired umbrella with LED lights that change color to match the user’s outfit.
One of Birch’s solutions? To hide the battery holder inside a T-shirt tag. The LED Sequin that Birch uses in this project is hand-washable. But there's still no way to toss conductive clothing in the wash.
Soft electronics are lighting up the runway, but it’ll be a while until they’re in our closets. Designers know what the problems are, but they don’t have solutions yet.
A Thriving DIY Community
If you can’t wait for soft wearables to get here, you’re not alone. Thousands of do-it-yourself minded makers have taken the craft into their own hands.
"I think a lot of it has to do with customization," said Birch. "If people want their electronic clothing to look cookie cutter, they'd go to Old Navy and buy the hoodie with the built in earbuds. I can make something that nobody else has."
One of the largest communities is at Adafruit, a DIY electronics hobby company. The company’s director of wearable electronics, Becky Stern, comes up with products, tutorials, and contests each #WearableWednesday on the community blog.
Stern got started in soft electronics in college, when she took a class on making wireless toys. In part thanks to things like the Adafruit Beginner LED Sewing Kit, it’s easier than ever for people of all ages to get started making wearable technology, no prior engineering knowledge required.
“Building electronics with your hands is certainly a fun brain exercise, but adding crafting into the mix really stretches your creativity,” said Stern. “Sewing is fun and relaxing, and adorning a plush toy, prom dress, or hat with a circuit of tiny parts can make you feel like you're some kind of futuristic fashion designer.”
Just like Internet of Things tinkerers have the Raspberry Pi and Arduino Uno as tools of choice, the soft electronics community also has adapted devices specifically for this hobby.
The Lilypad Arduino is a set of sewable electronic pieces developed by MIT Media Lab professor Leah Buechley. It’s smaller and flatter than an Arduino Uno, and is especially designed to be stitched to fabric with conductive thread. Buechley herself showed off its abilities with a biking jacket capable of LED turn signals just over your shoulder blades.
A similar platform is Adafruit’s FLORA, which the company released just last year. FLORA can be daisy chained with various sensors for GPS, motion, and light. On release, its touchstone project was a sparkle skirt that lights up when you move.
There aren’t any hard numbers on the DIY wearables community, but it’s clear from browsing members’ projects on Instructables that this group is far broader than your typical collection of electrical engineers. Stern also noted that there are 10,000 copies of FLORA in the wild, and the company ships them worldwide.
According to Stern, it’s simple. Make electronics touchable, and watch them take off.
“Playing with sensors and conductive textiles breaks electronics out of their hard shells and makes them more relatable,” she said.
Lilypad Arduino embroidery photo by Becky Stern; inline photos courtesy of Adafruit, Sensoree