Hi guys! Welcome to Homewreckery: Soft Circuits, Hardcore!
It's important to keep in mind that this talk is going to be a pretty basic introduction to soft circuits, as in, would you like to build your own soft circuits but haven't got the faintest as to how to get started? If so, this is the talk for you!
My name is Eli Skipp, I'm a member and erstwhile director of Chicago's hackerspace,
Pumping Station: One, an organization which actually has two other members talking here this year, Nicky Neulist aka rogueclown and Sacha De'Angeli aka chemhacker, so we're rolling deep and you should, you know, check out their talks too!
I'm a fine artist, an ex-visual communications person, a writer, and, as is pertinent to this discussion, a fibers artist.
I've been doing clothing construction, embroidery, pattern building, all that ish, for nigh on ten years now, but I only recently got started doing electronic clothing, thanks to two people,
Jordan Bunker &
Jeff Kantarek. Jordan & Jeff have been my collaborators on these projects since summer last year and without them none of my projects would ever have come to fruition.
So here's a breakdown of what you're getting yourselves into for the next hour or so: I'm going to give a short anecdote about how I got into all of this in the first place, then move from there to materials you ought to have handy for your basic projects, then onto some sort of tips & tricks you ought to keep in mind if you don't want your projects to drive you crazy (all figured out at the expense of my own craziness), and from there, time allowing, I'll show you some easy to do homebrew projects. Oh, and if I do end up talking too quickly, someone just make frantic football hand motions at me and I'll do my god's honest best to slow down. Onward ho!
Last summer I began making a jacket. It'd been a while since I'd proper built a piece of clothing, so I took an old jacket and cut it up and remade it into a marching band shrug, something I really wanted,
and then spent a week embroidering the old PS:One logo into the back, which is pain-staking and time consuming work. After a week and a half of pricking myself in the fingers I sat back and enjoyed a job well done, until I was asked, “Well. What ELSE does it do?”
So I set around to sew in a bunch of LEDs using conductive thread, which Jeff kindly donated unto me. Halfway through that process, someone came up to me and asked “So it's got LEDs. Well, what ELSE does it do?”
So I set around trying to work with a lilypad to get the LEDs to change patterns.
During that process I was then tasked with further attaching everything to flex sensors, so that bending your arms would trigger the patterns, because I was once again told “So it's got LEDs and a microcontroller, but what ELSE does it do?” We've got ambitious members =)
As you can imagine that all turned out to be way too much for me. I rewired 96 LEDs with conductive thread three times before Jordan took pity on me lest I burst into tears
and drew me up a simpler 20 LED circuit. I ended up supergluing my thread to my lilypad out of frustration, and then removed it altogether. It's only got one flex sensor now.
But it works! That project was a lot of learning through failures, but I suppose that's an invaluable process to go through, and it helped me create the following inventory of stuff to keep around:
Conductive Thread. This stuff is generally made up of a mix of cotton thread and silver and copper alloys. Sometimes it'll be made with synthetic fibers but I don't like that stuff, since cotton is far less flammable than polyester and doesn't get all melty. It comes in two different thicknesses, those being 117/17 ply (about the thickness of regular thread) and 234/34 ply (about the thickness of embroidery thread). I'll be honest, I loathe this stuff, but it's often a necessary evil. The problems with conductive thread are trifold: massive fraying, high resistance, and janky connections. Two of these (guess which ones) can be solved with fray lock, conductive glue, and super glue. Super glue is my not-terribly-recommended cure-all. While that solves the fraying and connections issues, you're still stuck with the resistance problem, which is harder to overcome. Conductive thread has resistance of about an ohm per inch, which really adds up and can cause problems. My best advice for this is to really plan out your circuit before you start sewing and make it as economical as possible, and then to, whenever possible, use the thicker ply conductive thread, which has a much lower resistance. Jimmy, Nicky, and Jordan advise me that this is because there is more area for the electricity to flow through, because and quote, “You're going to get a lot more resistance going through a tiny tube than through a big honkin' pipe,” and because, again and quote, “Electrons are STUPID.” You can buy spools of this stuff for between twenty and thirty dollars
Or about the price of a VCR.
I get mine from sparkfun, but you can get it a whole bunch of places. Here's a link to an instructables tutorial on how to make your own conductive thread, for all you overachievers.
Conductive fabric. If you've ever met me before, you've probably heard me wax poetic about conductive fabric. Wherein conductive thread has failed me time and time again, conductive fabric has made me want to wrap myself up in its cold steely embrace and drink a glass of wine to celebrate. This stuff comes in all sorts and types: stretchy and nonstretchy, mess and non-mesh, various metals and metal alloys, various fabric types. You can buy it from more conventional places like plugandwear.com, but the best place to buy this from is lessemf.com, a company lovingly known by its patrons as “the tinfoil hat guys.” Conductive fabric is made primarily to be a shielding material. If you wrap your cell-phone in it, you'll lose signal. It'll block x-rays, which has lead to some awkward questions in international airports and some awesome plans for conductive fabric pasties, for you modest people who dislike full body scanners. People buy it in large spools and coat entire houses in it. My uses for it aren't so grand, alas
I primarily purchase copper polyester taffeta, which is one of their cheapest fabrics. It's flexible, sewable, solderable, and best of all, has a magically low resistance of <0.05 Ohms per square inch. Sigh. I already told you where to purchase it but just in case
here's the link again, and, alternatively, an instructables tutorial for building your own. I guess I should tell you now that I'll have a link to this slideshow up on my website where you can get all these links again afterwards. No need for frantic scribbling!
Conductive glue. If you're using conductive thread, you're going to need this. Again, I tend to use superglue but I'll bet I shouldn't be doing that. Conductive glue, then, is going to be your life saver when you notice all of your janky connections are only working when you pull your fabric in a certain direction. You're going to glop it on like makeup on a lady of ill-repute, and your circuit is going to like it like the lady of ill-repute that it is. Luckily you can make yourself a large quantity of this stuff an make it as viscous or not as you'd like.
Here's an instructables link again, but conductive glue is essentially just powdered graphite (which you can purchase in bulk from most art supply stores) and liquid tape. Alternatively you can buy it from electronics parts shops and American Science and Surplus. Another upside to conductive glue: it can be used like conductive paint in order to make pretty much anything else conductive, such as fabrics and papers.
Lilypads and associated components. Okay, these aren't absolutely necessary and you're not going to turn to them every time you start a project, but they're great to have around. While I had a less than ideal experience with using a lilypad the first time around (see again: janky connections), they're gorgeously designed and well adapted to soft circuits, seeings as that's what they're made for. Should your projects graduate to the realm where they require microcontrollers, you're going to be ready to hug Leah Buechley and kiss her square on the mouth. You may still be inclined to do so even if you're not in need of an arduino, seeing as thanks to Miz Buechley, there are some gorgeous and sewable components that might do you some good: think vibration pads, accelerometers,
and teeny tiny switches. I only included this one because it’s so cute. Look at this thing, it's so ridiculously small!
I’m sure everyone can find these online, so Here’s an address for a great Lilypad components circuit layout tool that might come in handy.
Stepping away from that list of your more constant inventory, here's some things you can keep around for fun and easement, some just for electronics, others for any fibers work you intend to do:
Blinkies. I always keep around a ton of LEDs because they're such an easy and fun thing to use and play with. Even if you're not aiming to use LEDs they work all right as an indicator of a working circuit.
Odd components. Keeping some weird bits and pieces around is a good method of working your improvisational creativity. My friends who work with electronics more than I do tend to build their projects on a whim out of scrounged parts, an admirable quality. If you had tiny microphones and servos lying around though, I'll bet you could find something to do with them when your time frees itself up. A random an unexpected acquisition of a microphone has spurred in me an idea for an awesome gift for a lovely friend of mine, for instance. Exciting prospects!
A sewing machine. This is actually the model I have. I suffer when I don't have a sewing machine. Granted, with conductive thread your uses for a sewing machine tend to be minimal, but later on in this talk I'll give you an example of when my sewing machine could have been my best friend in the world. Want a sewing machine but worried you can't afford one? If craigslist and ebay aren't doing it for you, Sears will sell you mightily cheap sewing machines brought back by customers who used them once and realized they hate sewing. Not sure how to use a sewing machine? Jo-Anne's teaches classes all the time, and you can bet your boots that there's a crafters group or stitch and bitch circle around your town somewhere. Everyone should know how to use a sewing machine as well as how to sew by hand, it'll change your life and save you money and empower you in a weird way. Scout's honor.
An embroidery hoop. Embroidery hoops will help you get tighter, more consistent, and less frustrating stitches when sewing by hand. They cost about fifty cents, come in a million sizes, and are indispensable, no lie. If you've never used an embroidery hoop when sewing by hand, try it once. It'll make you feel a lot better.
A seam ripper. This will also make you feel a lot better. Even the best seamstress in the world makes myriad mistakes, there's no shame in that. But there is a lot of satisfaction in ripping those mistakes out. When I teach people how to sew, the seam ripper is always the first tool I bring up.
Various sewing supplies. I'm not going into detail here because this should be both obvious and self-explanatory. Keep needles of different gauges and thread in a few different colors and sizes, keep a box of spare fabric and a box of pins, a chalk pencil, and a lot of patience within arms reach.
Okay, enough of lists of material things, here's a list of things tips and tricks to keep in mind:
Always have a friend who knows more about this stuff than you do. Failing that? Always have the internet, which is full of people who likely know more about this stuff than you do. As with pretty much anything, your most indispensable resource is going to be the wisdom of people who've been there and done that before you. Even besides that, it's great to have someone around who can point out your silly mistakes to you and remind you that you're never going to be done learning.
If you don't have one yet, get yourself a rudimentary knowledge of electrical engineering. By rudimentary I mean, learn the basics about resistance, understand the limitations involved with there being a positive and ground, learn how to use a multimeter and a soldering iron and a power station and a breadboard, and get used to the smell of burnt out parts. Audit a college course if'n you have to, you'll have a lot of fun doing it. And by rudimentary I really do mean, rudimentary. What I know about electronics is novice as best but it gets the job done, when used in conjunction with that indispensable resource I just mentioned. What's a good way to get started? I don't know if you've heard, but there are a bundle of workshops here. Go learn from your fellow hackers, I will be!
Okay, here's a good one: I built this project I call a fabric light bright (if you can't tell from the name of this talk, I'm not the best at witty names), which I'll talk about in depth later, but more to the point, I hand embroidered the whole top side of it with conductive thread, which took a long time and a lot of bellyaching. I was worried that, given the default size of a conductive thread spool and the bigger ply of the thread, it wouldn't work in my sewing machine. Later I realized I could have done bobbin work. Bobbin work is a handy trick to know, because it allows you to sew with pretty much any size thread, to sew with yarn, or ribbon, or wire, and to do all of that via sewing machine. Bobbin work is essentially sewing upside down. Grab a bobbin, hand wind it with your thread of choice, and load it into your sewing machine. You're basically set to sew normally from this point as long as you keep in mind that your none-standard thread is going to be on the bottom. What took me a couple of days to do by hand can by done in half an hour or less this way.
Wanting to sew in resistors, LEDs, capacitors, etc.? Curl the ends up in order to sew them down proper. This is a Leah Buecheley tip. For things like resistors, wherein positive and ground sides don't matter, just curl them up on a pair of needle nose pliers any ole way. For things like LEDs, curl one side square and one side circular. I made the mistake of curling both sides in the same shape during my first jacket and Jordan had to make me a nifty little tester box. I've learned my lesson.
Where possible, just use wire instead of conductive thread. For my past two more-complicated projects, I used flex sensors and attached those using basic wire sewn into the seems of the garment. You can hide them inside or be out and proud of the grittiness of your design, but you'll be happy you did it either way. It's just more resilient and less resistant.
Want to wash your soft circuits? Build your circuit into a piece of fabric that can snap on and snap off of a garment. If it's not possible to do that with your entire circuit, do it for your battery pack at least. There are some easy snap on options for battery packs that come built that way, but if that doesn't work for you, Jeff recommends magnetic conductive snaps. I've also played with the option of zipping everything in, but if you don't want to look like a goth kid from the early 00's, that answer might not appeal to you.
If you're snapping your batteries in and out, it's still best if you wash your garment carefully and by hand. Conductive thread is fragile and likely your parts are too. If you insist on using a machine, at least wash them as if they were expensive lingerie and just as sexy. The delicate setting is your friend. And For the love of God don't use the dryer. When you're done washing your garment, hang it up to dry and give it all the time it needs.
Okay, and now to move onward from your more basic info on all of this stuff and onto a list of projects you can build yourself given the information I just gave you. I’m not going to go into most of them very in depth because I worry about time constraints and because the online tutorials for them explain far better than I could.
I’m starting with one of my own projects and we’ll move on from there. This here’s my fabric light bright. It’s really versatile, really fun to play with, and really really easy to build. Your options for screwing it up are severely limited, unlike most electronics projects. It's actually been featured on Hack-a-Day and on Makezine.com and DIYdaily.com and, like, ten other places, which was a real honor, especially considering how basic it is. I call it a fabric light bright but I'll seriously build one and send one (or send the components for building it) to whoever manages to come up with a more clever name than me that they’re willing to let me use. I'm desperate for one. In a way, it's a lot like a fabric bread-board, although there are definitely some limitations there.
Just as a quick note, if you’re really looking for a not-homemade fiber perf-board, plugandwear.com recently added one to their store.
I mentioned this project before when I was explaining bobbin work to you guys, and noted that I hand embroidered mine. Here’s a picture of that process, and here’s a picture of what I ought to have done:
That’s a somewhat fuzzy picture of a bobbin worked line, made with conductive thread in a Babylock Denim pro. The process for building this is, again, basic. You sew some lines down a piece of fabric pretty close together, or, if’n you’re hand embroidering, feel free to sew yourself some fancy schmany pictures.
You sew a strip of conductive fabric down the top and bottom to spread the voltage down evenly.
You sew a piece of regular fabric underneath your layer of conductive thread fabric, to separate your positive from your ground, and then you sew a layer of conductive fabric. You can see all those whatnots in the picture.
You grab yourself a two or three battery battery pack and connect your positive lead to the conductive thread. You can do this in a permanent fashion (I used a tiny lilypad switch for that originally) but if you’re going for impermanence, you can just hook the lead on all fine and dandy like.
Do the same for your ground lead and the conductive fabric.
Go ahead and poke an LED through. You can put it anywhere at all, so long as the positive lead touches a piece of conductive thread and the ground leads hits the conductive fabric. Does it light up? Well voila! Fabric light bright!
I have a method for making this easier and less messy in which I curl the positive side of my LED with needle nosed pliers so it can sit flat on the conductive thread and sharpen the ground lead with snippers so it can poke through with less hassl.e
Since my explanation was super vague, here’s the link to the PDF for how to build it. It’s definitely way more in depth.
Here’s a simple one from instructables which is a great starting point. It’s an LED bracelet, made so that the bracelet’s clasp is what finishes the connection and causes it to light up. The materials you need are few and simple: felt and fabric, needle and thread, and scissors, conductive thread, pliers, LEDs, some kind of conductive clasp, a battery and battery holder. The list of supplies on the site gives you a good place to find the non-obvious stuff. I’m not going to go into it too much since the link’ll do that for me.
Here’s a good one via kobakant.at: how to build your own flex sensor. I’ve mentioned flex sensors before in this talk and I tend to enjoy using them, they’re great components for dynamic garments, but they can get expensive, as in fifteen dollars per sensor. This tutorial is an awesome way to get your fabric-hack on even if you don’t need a flex sensor though. The brilliant thing about this tutorial is that it recommends making your sensor out of conductive fabric, conductive thread, neoprene, and snaps. It’s waterproof and washable, but also completely removable. Rock on!
This is another really simple and useful project that I like. It’s a method for making your own three volt battery holder out of felt or fabric. This comes particularly in handy for projects such as the LED bracelet I mentioned earlier: using so basic parts you have a much more aesthetically pleasing method of attaching your power source than just finagling your battery in any which way. It’s a good tutorial for learning some simple conductivity lessons and ending up with a really cute battery. How much time do I have? (if more time, skip down)
And that about wraps it up for everything I wanted to talk about. I guess in conclusion, awesome things come from putting electronics and clothing together, even if all you want to do is make your clothes blinky and shiny. Hacking clothing like this will always be a valuable thing, because, in the words of my first fashion teacher, “Clothing designers will never be out of demand, everyone wears clothes.” Why not make the ones we have more functional and more interesting? I’ll take questions now, but when I’m done, go build your own stuff and then tell me all about it, or if you’ve done so already I definitely want to know!
Here’s my e-mail, my twitter, and a link to my website, feel free to e-mail me or add me, and more contact info is on my site. I’ll happily take any questions or constructive criticism (but please, be nice), and any suggestions you have.
Well since I have some extra time I’m going to show you some other projects built by two friends of mine. Jeff Kantarek was a professional electronics engineer until he became ever so happily unemployed. Now he mostly builds things with a startup company and hangs around the space helping everyone else (yours truly included) figure out what they were doing wrong with their electronics projects.
Jeff Kantarek is building a bio-feedback shirt! It’s still currently in progress, but I’d like to update you on how it’s going so far.
The premise of this project is to provide bio-feedback in order to improve balance and thus accelerate recovery of people with balance-related issues, such as inner ear problems. It uses a lillypad, an accelerometer, vibration boards, a LiPo battery, plus a bunch of conductive thread.
He ran into trouble with the resistance of the conductive thread and the shaky connections and the fraying of the thicker ply thread. He simply couldn't get a good connection with the individual pads. Jeff had planned on making all connections prior to sewing it down, which created messes and tangles and frustrations, as you can see in the picture.
He was forced to switch to 117/17 ply and hope the resistance didn't add up and cripple performance, and he also drew up a new shirt and sewed in the conductive thread proper, and less messily, with fabric sewn over to allow overlapping. Ground connections were completed and the accelerometer was attached to the analog inputs on the main lilypad board and a small pocket was added for the battery and the vibration pads were sewn on and attached to their positive leads.
The vibration pads are sewn on the inside of the shirt for direct skin contact and runs around the waist. When one’s balance goes off center, these vibration pads buzz and let you know, until you find yourself properly upright again.
In the end though, Jeff came to realize that a shirt was perhaps not the best things to mount this project on and moved on to a chest/waist strap. He’s still currently working on this, his prototype is mostly complete but tends to remove itself from soft-circuits. His second prototype however will include stretchy conductive fabric. Check out www.affectiveengineering.com if you’d like to follow his progress. He’s got other really interesting projects he’s working on on there as well, including a project called Warm Strings which he is building with Jasna Delic. Warm Strings is a scarf with a lilypad, speaker, and touch pads attached so that one can play it like a violin. I wish it were done so I could show you. Moving on!
This next project was made by John Stoner,
an incorrigible member of the cycling community in Chicago who
also happens to be a damn decent programmer.
He created &quot;Boogie Pants!” (pardon the picture quality – it was difficult to take a better one as John’s dedicated belly dancer currently has posession of the actual garment)
&quot;Boogie Pants&quot; is actually quite different from the rest of the projects I'm mentioning on here, and is less an example of electrifying clothing and more an example of the awesome relationships that technology and fibers can have. While &quot;Boogie Pants&quot; incorporates none of the indispensable components I mentioned in the beginning of this talk (although it could if one were inclined to get fancy), it very much deserves mentioning. &quot;Boogie Pants&quot; was made using an apron-like garment
and a wii-mote, not to mention a pretty good knowledge of java and wii-mote hacking.
I can't explain any of that, but luckily John can. John is working on a document on how to built it, so keep your eyes peeled!
So what does &quot;Boogie Pants&quot; do? John says to think of them like a synthesizer keyboard. Different media events are assigned to different controls, for example a sample of tone.
Even better? It's controlled by dancing! John is working with belly dancers right now to make a good example video
of how sharp movements can create sharp sounds,
how back and forth movements create regular scales,
and how pelvic circles and similar movements can create circular scales, and on and on. NOTE: Pure Data is back-end boogiepants is front-end
In John's words, &quot;It is a new category of thing to use videogame technology and fibers together for a musical performance in a way that enhances the interaction between the performer and the audience. So, imagine a belly dancer on a stage, with a garment that integrates wireless motion sensors (the Wii remote and Nunchuk). There is an image of an avatar projected on a screen behind her. As she dances, the avatar moves with her body, interacting with objects on the screen, causing 'media events'--playing samples or scales, various different things. You could control lots of kinds of things with it. As she pushes buttons on the sensors, sets of objects swap in and out. It's a fully open sourced project. The code is open-source and the garment designs will be too. Collaborators are welcome: coders, dancers, DJs, and 3D modelers all have a place in boogiepants.&quot;
NOTE: “All boogiepants instruments require an OSC address, which defines where their signals go when they are played. Different instruments types send different signals. All boogiepants signals are single floating point numbers. &quot;
For the future of the project he wants to change a few things:
1. Currently it's based on tilt-sensing, on both the core of the body and the pelvis. In the future I want full-motion sensors, and more of them, controlling more music. Imagine going to see Daft Punk or someone like that, and instead of standing behind a big console and working with the controls of a conventional DJ rig, they came out and danced, and controlled full-body avatars projected on stage behind them, and controlled the music that way. Imagine, instead of video (or in addition to it) on the Jumbotrons at stadium shows, full-body avatars moving with the performers, controlling the music. Not just with their pelvises, but with their entire bodies.
2. Easier programming and extensibility of visual effects. So, right now there are four different kinds of controls in boogiepants, four 'instruments.' They are cool, but they have limited visual appeal and dynamicism. Imagine if you had an easy way to add new kinds of visual effects or musical events to boogiepants. Imagine giving that power directly to the artist, with tools that are easy to use.
Crazy cool and crazy adorable! You can find out more about this project from http://boogiepants.typepad.com.
“ It is a new category of thing to use videogame technology and fibers together for a musical performance in a way that enhances the interaction between the performer and the audience.” Soft circuits, HARDCORE!
NOTE: “All boogiepants instruments require an OSC address, which defines where their signals go when they are played. Different instruments types send different signals. All boogiepants signals are single floating point numbers." Soft circuits, HARDCORE!
Changes for the future of boogiepants! Soft circuits, HARDCORE!
“ Currently it's based on tilt-sensing, on both the core of the body and the pelvis. In the future I want full-motion sensors, and more of them, controlling more music.” Soft circuits, HARDCORE!
“ Easier programming and extensibility of visual effects.” Soft circuits, HARDCORE!