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Look Smart with Soft computing, wearables and etextiles
James Fowler
October 24, 2012

When I was young I got a pair of Zany Zappers for my birthday and was fascinated by the idea that I could control LED lights on a pair of sunglasses from a hidden button in my pocket. That was 1982. Wearables have come a long way since then. The combination of technology and fibre arts has long been a part of sci-fi culture (check out the fashions of those romping the red carpets of comic-cons everywhere), but there is also the real-life work of intermedia and electronic artists who are increasingly coming into their own.


Vessel by Erin Lewis, 2012

A lot research and experimentation is happening within the field of soft computing, etextiles, and wearables. On one end of the spectrum are conceptual projects like Erin Lewis' Earthquake Skirt, her humourous (and adult) Kegel Organ, and the Vessel (a twelve-foot long canoe knit with fishing line, imbedded with LEDs and fibreoptics, and driven by data generated from the wind on Lake Ontario). The other end of the spectrum includes more subtle and practical wearables like Joanne Jin's Bubble Pop Electric or the screening bra from First Warning Systems which checks for breast cancer in the wearer.

So what tech is behind the art and fashion? Here are a few components at work:

LilyPad Arduino. The LilyPad is the brain of many projects. It is a flexible Arduino designed specifically for etextiles and wearable projects. Like other Arduinos, it has ports for both sensor input and activity outputs.


                                                                     Photo by Jie Qi

Shields and add-on hardware. Like other Arduinos, the LilyPad Arduino has a selection of add-on hardware specifically designed for it. This could include anything from the xBee (allowing for remote input or output) to various sized battery packs.

Software. The Arduino can execute programs of varying complexity. There are downloadable programs for the novice and the more experienced can create custom programs limited only by the imagination.


                                                                                                                           Photo by Lynn Brunning

Conductive materials. Fabrics and paints have come a long way. There are conductive threads that can be fed through garments to allow for power as well as copper threaded fabrics for touch and sensor pads. Likewise, metal paints can be used to run current.


Sensors. Motion sensors can be attached to a garment. Some can detect the movement of the wearer; others can detect light levels, proximity to other people, or temperature. Data from these sensors can create a reaction within the garment or, as with the xBee, can deliver data to a computer to initiate external activity. Your new shoes could be tweeting your whereabouts or a dancer could create digital art through dance.


Outputs. There are many things that can be included in a garment. Motors can shake, vibrate, or bend a fabric and thus the wearer. There are a range of lights that can be attached. The simplest are LED lights, light strips, or special LED beads. More complex imaging hardware can also be added like the Philips Lumalive woven electronics fabric platform, which can be attached to a garment to produce beautiful results.

The Kickbee allows the fetus to tweet.                              Shirt made from etextiles.  

Like most emerging fields in art, there is a fair amount of open source programming and sharing is fostered. If you would like to know more about technology and fibre arts, you can look to any art school or electronic arts centre. Kate Hartman, one of the creators of the xBee for the LilyPad Arduino, teaches at OCAD and runs Toronto's Social Body Lab - a space dedicated to wearables, soft computing, and etextiles.

InterAccess just had a workshop on the xBee for Arduino and has some programming workshops coming up in November that focus on soft computing. You can find out more about their workshops here.


James Fowler worked in public relations with organizations in various industries to achieve their communications goals and streamline their media messaging, monitoring and metrics. James currently maintains a fulltime studio practice in Toronto and has taken a keen interest in social media and eMarketing. He joined Akimbo in the spring 2011 as Social Media Director.

LETS CONNECT! Please leave your comments and questions below - We'd love to hear form you! You can also join our coversations on Twitter and Facebook. If you know of someone who is using technology in a new and interesting way, think we might investigate a new trend or want to make a suggestion for a TweetChat topic, please write us at 



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Posted by lynne bruning, on 2012-10-31 03:37:23
Thanks for the link to my website. Much appreciated!