Sewable Circuits

Sewable Circuits

This year I have been selected to talk at Devs Love Bacon about electronics and particularly, sewable circuits. I submitted the talk after my Christmas project (which involved quite a few sewn electronics) started to really tickle my interest for DIY wearables. This talk was also a good opportunity to research the state of wearables, and compare mass-produced gadgets versus DIY. Below is a quick summary of my presentation.

A brief history and definition of wearables.
“Wearables” appears to be the buzzword of these past few years. If you came across a pair of Google Glass or a FitBit, you wouldn’t deny they’re wearables. But what if I affirmed that your regular reading glasses, or your watch (if you still wear one) are wearable technology? You’d probably agree on the wearable part of it; but, ‘technology’? Well, it’s true that nowadays, there’s nothing extraordinary about these common objects, but if you dig around, you’ll find that they fit the definition of technology.
The application of scientific knowledge for practical purpose, especially in industry
With this definition, the first ever mention of a wearable dates back to the XIIIth century. And by reading further along the timeline of A brief history of wearable computing, we notice that the first “smart” watch was already around about 50 years ago. So, what’s the difference? Wearables seem to be a trend: new gadgets keep appearing on the market, backed by an audience of consumers, attracted by shiny new things, (and more or less new technology). But being trendy means there’s a huge chance for a device to become obsolete.
Tweet: Shelf of abandoned wearables

The market is expanding at quite a fast pace, but some gadgets are already rejected by consumers. Products have a short lifespan these days and we start to notice some decline in the middle of this expansion. This doesn’t mean that wearable technology will disappear; it simply means that devices will evolve to be more discreetly integrated into our lives, without being generalised under the label “wearables”. Pretty much like a pair of glasses or a watch are today. These objects are not considered wearables anymore. Even though they fit the defintion of “wearable technology”, they don’t match the idea that people have of wearables. Some people assume, and seem to define wearable technology as a subset of the Internet of Things; i.e. a wearable device must be Internet connected.This view can be quite reductive. As long as it contains electric components and you can wear it, then it’s wearable technology. No matter if it tells the weather by connecting to an API or just with a humidity and temperature sensor, it’s still technology. Probably not as “smart” as some would like it.

Reducing wearable technology to a minimum (e.g. an LED, a battery, and a LilyPad Arduino on a hat) opens the field of possibilities and experiments, as we’ll discuss shortly. A simple flashing tiara could be considered a – pointless, but fun – wearable device.

From consumerism to Art and Fashion, a wide variety of gadgets.
Let’s start by having a quick look at the market. According to Vandrico, the wearable technology database, there are currently 233 devices on the market for an average price of $373 (that’s 18 more devices than at the time of my talk, a month ago). Out of these 233 wearables, 92 are meant to be worn on the wrist. And that’s not surprising, according to Russell Davies (Modern Manners, WIRED UK, Jan 2014):
The wrist has been a display area since before the watch, and it's conveniently located right next to our most movable parts
Even less surprising if we notice that the new generations rarely wear a watch to get the time (mobile phones do the job quite well!). Their wrists then become available for another kind of device.
The Wearable Technology Show was pretty disappointing, though. Most of the products were “smart watches” and lacking the WOW-factor. Trying to put a smartphone on someone’s wrist doesn’t seem very practical (screen too small, need to use both hands to type, etc.) or innovative.
You always have email
Wearable gadgets seem to be more appealing when they know how to be discreet (Dialog, for example, is almost like a tattoo) or can be worn as jewellery (that’s the case with Shine or Cuff).

To quote R. Davies again, “efficiency is not a priority for wearables […], once your technology is there, it is cheap and ubiquitous enough for the perpendicular possibilities to emerge – and that’s when things get interesting”. Consumers won’t always want something practical, sometimes it’s about being entertained. Now that we’ve got the technology, we can be more creative. That’s why some completely decadent wearable projects start emerging in the Art world.

Galaxy Dress
This Galaxy Dress (pictured above), for example, is probably not the most comfortable piece of clothing to wear; but it’s shiny and dazzling. It is exploring the very thin barrier between clothing and technology. And of course we’re likely to see “wearables in the Arts” as Fashion, but wearables can help enhance choreographies, or the way we experience music, concerts, or even the way we read! MIT students developed Sensory Fiction, an adaptation of The Girl Who Was Plugged In made to trigger sensory reactions from the reader, using various sensors, lights and compression mechanics. Admittedly, not very practical; but a beautiful experiment nonetheless.

Sensory Fiction

All this might be a bit much. We all agree those kinds of wearables aren’t devices that would be worn on a daily basis; even though they bring us one step closer to being cyborgs. These works of Art are experiments, ways to push back the boundaries of tech while making it accessible and inspiring the Maker Movement.

DIY: A way to learn, have fun and create something unique
All that entertainment and creativity can drive people to make wearables themselves. Sometimes it might result in useless and silly (but again, fun) devices. All that craze for wearables started a controversy, part of it in the form of the (slightly aggressive) website What The Fuck Is My Wearable Strategy?. Sarcastic ideas for wearables are generated on each page load. These ideas, such as “Jumper that self-destructs when it’s sunny outside” can inspire makers to take up the challenge and create a similar object, just for the learning experience, or the pleasure of discovering new components. It sure helps develop their creativity. Nowadays, you don’t need to be an engineer to make things. With sewable circuits in particular, tinkerers and even children can now put together simple electronic circuits without having to use a soldering iron (no risk of injury or incident on that front). Sewable circuits are here to bridge the gap between hardcore makers and beginners.

The minimum requirement for a sewn circuit is really a battery, an LED and some conductive thread. Now, of course, a project could grow bigger and require more components or even a microcontroller. In the past 10 years, Arduino has made electronics accessible; it is easy to get started and find help in a growing online community, should you get stuck. It is easy for developers, who can focus on the code, without worrying too much about the hardware. The only problem with the standard Arduino UNO is that it’s too big for wearables. You wouldn’t wear a device like LEWE (pictured below) on a regular basis.
Naturally, this is only a prototype and will grow smaller when proven functional. That’s when Arduino Mini or LilyPad come in.

LilyPad Arduino

LilyPad Arduino has been created for sewable circuits by Leah Buechley and is aimed at women, who are more likely to be interested in textiles and run projects around them. And it’s fair to say that sewing is quite a feminine tradition, even if things are now evolving, and because of the electronics aspect, men might get interested in sewing. Similar to LilyPad, FLORA has been developed by Adafruit and is Arduino-compatible. GEMMA is even a smaller version than this, but offers fewer pins to work with. All these items are easily embeddable into fabric without creating too much weight on it. Their round shape also means that they could be left visible and integrated into your design (example below).

LilyPad design

In terms of components, even though you can curl up the leads of a normal LED to make small sewable hooks, some components might not be as easy to integrate with fabric. But that’s not a problem because you can now easily find specialised components such as light sensors, accelerometers, buzzers, push buttons and more,… that are made for e-textiles and come with small conductive rings that you can sew through. And to make a circuit, it’s pretty straight-forward; instead of the wires you’d normally use, you have conductive thread to link them together. And of course, some battery holders are also made to be sewn.

There is a big, mixed community behind DIY wearables. One of its members even took LilyPad further and made it out of fabric. It’s called LilyPatch and is really cheap to make.
DIY is fun and you learn a lot when you make things yourself. And you also get a sense of achievement. You’re very likely to produce something unique. Even if you’re following a tutorial, the outcome won’t be exactly identical. With sewable electronics, wearables become customisable at your will, with no major engineering skills required. Things like flexible prototype boards are starting to emerge, to fit the needs of wearable makers.

Most wearables (homemade or not) will leave you looking stupid. But, you will feel very proud if you’ve made it yourself and learned something in the process – be it about electronics, or sewing techniques or something else. With the growing (and very active) makers community, DIY ought to be more prominent in the upcoming years, especially with devices like MetaWear coming to the market. This has recently been funded on Kickstarter, and it is aimed at a wide audience, promising to enable you to make a wearable in less than 30 minutes.

With wearables being a trend, people are already planning the future, saying that holdables or hearables might be the next big thing.

Sources and related articles
The History of Wearable Tech, From the Casino to the Consumer
How Wearable Technology Will Impact Web Design
Which body parts are we attaching computers to?
Wearable arts: time to experiment
Anti-NIS Wearable
How thin, flexible electronics will revolutionize everything from user interfaces to packaging
Soft Circuit Saturdays
Make It Wearable – YouTube Channel

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