Building with E-Textiles, Part 2

Last week, I spent an afternoon diving into the wonderful world of e-textiles. That is to say that I spent several hours sewing electrical components into a garment in an attempt to learn something new about both textiles and interactive consumer electronics. What I discovered was a surprisingly vast industry poised to explode in popularity and market share in the next few years. The unique engineering challenges presented by wearable electronics represent a significant barrier to entry for any company seeking to break into this largely untapped market. That means those who do have the design expertise and engineering capability can fairly easily start to work with off-the-shelf components to build interesting new products. You know those shoes kids wear that have a little light that flashes every time they take a step? That’s just the beginning. Soon, you’ll start to see jeans with lights along the length of each leg. It starts with a little light. Then, it evolves into complex sequences of light pulses, and suddenly kids are using their clothes to communicate in an entirely new way.

So that’s all interesting and terrifying, but you’re really here for details on the light dancing gloves we’re making. Where do I begin? Ah, yes. Where part one ends, we had the light cluster sewn (installed?) in the right glove. Once I had a feel for the sewing, it was simply a matter of placing each component to minimize thread length. We were quite fortunate that the rest of the components fell naturally into place. With one exception, there are no crossing threads in the entire design. That is to say that there is only one point in the circuit layout where one trace must cross over another without intersecting it. Textiles make this a bit easier, since there are two sides of every fabric. Pass one thread over the other by punching through the fabric and running across the back side. This relies on the fabric to act as a suitable insulator between the two threads. We recommend avoiding designs that involve this sort of thing. It leads to complications and opportunity for substantial maintenance overhead in the event two threads make contact.

We were doubly fortunate, in that no one was wearing our finished glove when I melted a small section of polyester glove material while running a test. That would likely have resulted in a nasty burn. The material I melted was also coincidentally the only thing preventing the supply voltage from contacting the ground and shorting out the system. I was able to identify the problem and disconnect the power before that could happen, so no major harm done. Forensic analysis suggests the resistance of the circuit powering the lights is very low, resulting in excessive current through the common ground. We’ll be modifying the design to add a decorative (current-limiting) resistor between their common ground and the actual ground. This will prevent future melting, burning, cursing, and ancillary drama. The point is to have fun, not to learn triage techniques for 2nd degree burns. That will most likely happen tomorrow, as soon as I can find a suitable resistor to wire in.

Today, I bought a second pair of gloves to make a glove for myself. I’m calling this one the mark 2. After perusing the Home Depot utility glove section, I settled on Gorilla Grip. They are all black, except a little silver around the wrist. The XL fit me snugly, which was a surprise, as I expected a M or possibly L. These are interesting gloves. They feel like rubber, but they are 100% nylon. They’re very flexible, which makes the sewing much easier. I was able to sew all the components into the mark 2 gloves in about 3hrs, whereas the mark 1 gloves took almost 12hrs. To be fair, the mark 2 does have a simpler design with all the components on the back of the glove. Mostly, though, the reduced build time is largely due to complete lack of design and sewing proficiency for the mark 1. Now that I know more about the rules of this design medium, I’m already improving on the design.

Here’s a photo stream of the process: https://www.icloud.com/photostream/#A15oqs3qSqdIy

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Building with E-Textiles, Part 1

You know, I never thought I’d say this, but I am really excited to learn better sewing technique. And believe, me, coming from a mechanic/machinist/engineer that means a lot. Over the last few days, I’ve been working with the always-lovely Dr Sophia B Liu (http://sophiabliu.com) to design and fabricate a pair of gloves embedded with lights and accelerometers. We are building an interactive sculpture of sorts, where light is coupled with movement and gravity to create a visual experience. We are using a beautiful piece of hardware called a LilyPad Arduino, along with some sensors and lights, hoping to build something beautiful. Our first project is to couple the three axes of the accelerometer sensor to the three primary colors to produce motion-sensitive color.

After many hours of design discussion, finding a compromise between usability and ease-of-manufacturing, we began the tedious process of sewing our components into our gloves. As a sidenote, we got some great polyester 60s vintage gloves at a cute shop in St Pete (Speckled Red). If you’re looking for cool vintage stuff, check them out. So, I spent this afternoon sewing the lights onto the gloves. There was a lot of 3D design involved. We were really fortunate with the gloves because they have four seams on each finger. This makes it really easy to keep the various traces of conductive thread from touching each other. We needed four traces per finger, so this is a perfect match for our needs.

After a day’s work, we have our first cluster of lights sewn into our first glove. Since we’re both scientists, we’re testing small combinations of components to make sure our assumptions are on target before we proceed into the next phase. Now that most of the hard work is done and our first light cluster is in place, the next step is to attach the LilyPad, battery, and accelerometer sensor. That will give us our first opportunity to see how the glove behaves, using our best guess first draft firmware.

That’s coming up in Part 2. Stay tuned!

LED Cluster Sewn Into Black Glove

A Halloween Costume Worthy of Song

I don’t often celebrate Halloween to the extent I’d prefer. Inevitably, every year the event is suddenly a week away, and I have occasion to run around like a maniac, seeking a creative solution to my lameness. This year, I am planning ahead… by a week. But! This is what 2-day shipping is for. And without further delay, I present to you my plan for costume excellence:

This evening, I purchased some awesome hardware, called a LilyPad Arduino (http://lilypadarduino.org). It’s basically a flexible circuit that can be woven into any textile product using conductive thread. It has a USB adapter that allows me to program the system from my laptop. Simply plug in, download the firmware, unplug, and go. So, what exactly are we building?

Real-time interactive motion-sensitive performance art

Using embedded wearable electronics, we combine the computing power of a microcontroller with data from an accelerometer to control the intensity of an array of red, blue, green, and white LEDs woven into the fabric. In fact, all this is sewn right into the leather. We specifically chose to use gloves for this project because the hands are often the most expressive part of the body. The position of the arms dictates the direction of gravity measured by a sensor in the wrist. This signal is carried through stainless steel thread up the back of the hand into the LilyPad, where it is used to control the timing of signals out to the LED arrays for each color. When standing with arms down by your sides, the color is blue. With arms straight out, it’s green. With arms up, it’s red.

This motion-sensitive color presentation is wonderful on its own. When combined with dance, it takes on a new dimension, especially at night. The bright color against the dark makes for an ethereal experience. But that’s not far enough. We wanted to give some extra depth and richness to the experience, some way for the dancer to control the lights, either through movement or some manual interface. So, we added interactivity to the fingers. When pressing the thumb and index finger tips together, the LEDs flash slowly. The middle finger and thumb yield a medium frequency flash. The ring finger and thumb produce a high frequency flash.

With this combination of movement and touch, the dancer conjures a very specific visual experience, blending motion, light, and song. Observant readers will note I have not described a costume for myself. No, this costume is intended for my girlfriend. I will most likely go as Zombie Steve Jobs and watch her dance. She is, after all, a ninja dancer. *smoke bomb*

Why Apple Has Already Won

Hopefully, after reading the title, you’re now thinking I’m an obnoxious Apple fanboy. In many respects, you’re not wrong. I’ll ask you to set that aside for a moment, though. I promise this post is objective (mostly).

Opening Thoughts

Let me start off by stating the obvious. Apple started first. Before the iPad, the next best thing was a netbook (yawn). Sure, iPhones were very popular, but there was a big gap between the phone and laptop form factors, and most manufacturers questioned the value of introducing a product in the middle. Before the iPhone hit the market, there were some stylus-based convertible laptops, but they never really captivated the market. Netbooks offered an inexpensive option with less power and smaller screens, in exchange for better battery life. However, they suffered from the same isolation problem that all laptops had prior to the App Store. Getting apps for a netbook is virtually impossible if you are not tech savvy. Knowing where to go to find apps for your netbook was easy for DIY folks with lots of free time to learn the intricacies of Linux. Common folks are not apt (pun intended) to use a command-line tool to install software on their device. They don’t know how a virtual machine works or why they would need Java to run something they downloaded from some dark corner of the internet. For them, it must be simple.

Ecosystem

If Microsoft is to have any success with their Surface tablet, they must offer an easy centralized way to find apps for people to buy, download, and use on their tablet. They can not rely on the hope that the user only needs word processing, web browsing, social networking, and photo sharing. They must offer customers the ability to find and easily install software that is not preloaded, software that is designed specifically for the device by a third party. Apple already has 6yrs of experience doing exactly that.

With over half a million apps, Apple has a more diverse collection of software than all other sources on the planet combined (I have no proof for this, but I believe it to be true), and it’s all available for sale in one place on every user’s device. More importantly, it’s a curated list. There are no viruses, spyware or malware apps, or even trojan horses. Apple has strict rules for publishing apps, and they’re very serious about security. Their policies promoted an ecosystem that attracted developers and customers in droves. Microsoft has yet to announce anything like this.

Developer Relations

The best hardware in the world with the most sophisticated interface and the cleanest, prettiest display won’t make a lick of difference if there’s no software to run on it. If you can’t inspire developers to publish apps on your platform, you’re dead before you ever take off. Apple was very wise to launch to developers first, before they ever spent a penny in consumer advertising. By approaching key developers from a wide variety of software genres (games, productivity, etc), Apple guaranteed that when it came time to launch a few months later, consumers would have a substantial collection of apps to browse. This included many popular and familiar titles from the desktop/laptop world.

Yes, it’s true that the very first iPhone launched with only apps developed by Apple, but remember we’re talking about iPad, not iPhone. There were over 200k apps on the App Store when the iPad launched. Today, there are over half a million. As of about a month ago, there were 883 titles available on the Xbox 360 (source: http://www.statisticbrain.com/xbox-statistics/). As a point of reference, there are over 90k iOS developers.

Marketing

Apple has always been masters of design and usability, but their real strength is in marketing. When they launch a product, they hold an event where they literally put it on a pedestal on stage, point a camera at it, and say “behold!” They highlight the feature offering, and give the audience just enough to get excited before moving on. Then, at the end, they tell you how much it costs and when it will be available. People stand in a queue for hours, waiting for the slim chance that the Apple Store will have enough iPads for them. Mock these people if you like (I do), but you can’t deny the statement they’re making.

Today’s Microsoft event, unveiling the Surface tablet, involved a lot of repetition. Balmer really seemed to want to hammer home how awesome this product is. The harder he tries to sell it, though, the less exciting it is. There are some interesting features being introduced with this tablet, but there was no mystery or magic in this launch. Plus, they didn’t bother to tell anyone when it would be available nor how much they would cost. This means people can certainly yearn for it, but they can’t start saving for it or planning their budget for it.

Conclusion

Microsoft has had plenty of opportunity to plan the “iPad killer” product that would shift the balance of the tablet space back toward the middle. They’ve seen three generations of iPads launched. They’ve seen the meteoric rise in sales figures that Apple publishes each quarter. They needed to do everything at least as well as Apple does, and they fell short. This is why they’ll always be playing catch-up, hoping to find that magic formula that inspires millions to buy their product, but never quite getting there.

The only thing that would change this analysis is end-user price. If Microsoft offers this device at $150-200, that would put it at or below the price of most Android tablets, but with better features. I expect the price to be closer to $400, which is low enough to beat the low-end iPad. Don’t be surprised, though, if they achieve this by cutting corners on built-in storage (4gb?) and hyping up the SD card slot.

Creativity is So Much Fun

I’ve been tooling around with branding images all day, and I am re-discovering how much fun it can be to do graphic design. I do not refer to myself as a designer, and I would not charge for my graphic design services, but I know my way around Photoshop, Flash, and Illustrator. I’m really pleased with the results. I’m not completely sold on the colors, but it’s really coming along. See for yourself:

EnrollMint logo 512px

Inspiration From an Unlikely Source

I’m working on branding design for my new subscription service-as-a-service business (EnrollMint™), and I’m visually developing a theme that ties in currency and security. The service will eventually have an iPhone/iPad app to track customer and subscription analytics and display them on your mobile device. Since that requires an icon and a few other branding assets, I figured now is as good a time as any to get started with some concepts. I churned out some filth before I decided to backpedal and see if I could find inspiration in google images.

I like the association of coins with the mint, and I also like the column style building facade that inspires trust and a sense of long-lasting integrity. From there, I expanded into something I love, integrating simple typography into shapes. This was one of my favorite exercises in 2D design class in college. Immediately, I thought “mint starts with m; so does money” and my mind jumped to the visual similarity of the legs of the m (lower case) and the columns in the building facade.

Here’s a snapshot of the evolution of the concept:

evolution of the EnrollMint logo

The evolution started with the curly arrow in the top left, which I quickly scrapped because of the difficulty of conveying a scroll or “important document” impression, compounded by the wide horizontal aspect. Icons need to be square or round to be most effective. I started to incorporate the sense of people in the image, but the first impression I get when I imagine a bunch of stick figures superimposed over the stairs of a column building, I think “tourists visiting the Lincoln Memorial.” Nice image, but not exactly giving you the impression of making money.

I struggled with minutia, like the round parts of the m, and how to integrate them cleanly into the column headers. That didn’t really settle out until I rendered it smaller and wrapped it with a circular border to represent the raised edge around the perimeter of a coin. The coin transition also solved my problem of how to integrate the word “enroll” into the image. Since coins typically have text around the edge, offset and justified to follow the curve of the coin, this was a perfect place to put the text.

Here’s a close-up of the resulting product:

concept for EnrollMint logo

This will likely evolve into logos, icons, and assorted image assets for the web and mobile apps.

Where did this inspiration come from? Much of it came from a project I did a few years ago as a favor to my then girlfriend, Dru. She was turning 25, and we had a party at my place to celebrate. I designed and printed the invitations. She liked the idea of a quarter century theme, so we found a quarter image, took some side pictures of her, and used them to assemble a picture of a quarter with the word “dollar” replaced with “century” and Washington’s face replaced with Dru’s face. Who knew I’d use a very similar technique years later on a completely unrelated project? (There are two easter eggs also. One is fairly easy to spot. If anyone gets the other, I’ll be extremely surprised.)

Here’s the finished invitation, for your amusement (important details redacted, of course):

Dru's 25th Birthday Party Invitation (Redacted)

I am not a professional designer (far from it), but I think they turned out really well. I’m even more pleased that I can use this theme for these vital branding assets for an exciting and potentially lucrative project.