Apparel outfitted with flashing lights, speakers, wires, and microcontrollers … well, let’s face it, it seems a little geeky. But a new fabric-based construction kit, called the Lilypad, could push wearable electronics into the crafty realm of construction paper and glitter glue.

Make Your Own Wearable
Leah Buechley

"I’m really interested in changing the look and culture around computer science," said Leah Buechley, a graduate student of computer science at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

The kit is a research project, but a version of it was recently made into a commercial product available for purchase. That product contains metal flower petals, each one a different kind of electronic component.

For example, one is a microcontroller, the small computer brain of any wearable system. Others are sensors, power supplies, lights or speakers. The kit also comes with conductive thread and some parts that allow for programming.

A person using the crafty components could, for example, sew the power supply into fabric using the conductive thread, connect it to the microcontroller, sew a movement sensor to the microcontroller and connect that to a light.

To program the electronics, the person would attach little metal alligator clips to the microcontroller and plug the other end of the clips into the USB port.

Using free, open-source software called Arduino, developed separately by other researchers — including associate arts professor Tom Igoe of New York University — the person could program the components to behave in specific ways. For example, when the sensor moves, the light could flash.

"It’s pretty to look at. How unusual is that in electronics?" posed Igoe.

And "pretty" could open up the notion of playing around with electronics to people other than boys and engineers.

"I’m really excited about using the kit to get girls and young people involved in computer science and engineering," said Buechley.

The challenge may come in taking wearable electronics to the next level, said Igoe.

"Right now, we can make flashy LED shirts. Okay. Great. What can you do after that?" he asked.

And as it is with all fashion, people have to want to wear it.

"We often fail to recognize that design and aesthetic are part of function," said Igeo.

But for Buechley, the important part is getting electronics into the hands of people who may not necessarily see themselves as computer scientists.

"My first priority is on the social side, just trying to develop a community of users and doing my work with kids to develop a network and community," said Buechley.

Via: Discovery Channel