Computational Textiles and E-Fashion

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Recent research on new media has focused on understanding how young people are adopting sophisticated tools and methods for responding to media through creative production, including youth’s playing and making of video games, creating videos and animations, and contributing to and participating in massive virtual communities. While these activities have received considerable attention, current research tends to overlook dimensions of digital media that impact youth’s activities beyond the screen: namely, those aspects of media construction and design that dovetail with hands-on crafts, physical construction and design, and material play.

This relatively new landscape in the physical world suggests a vast extension of the traditional notion of digital learning — an extension that can enrich youth's expressive and intellectual lives by combining the affordances of the virtual world with those of tangible media designs and creations. We argue that as today’s notions of "media texts" are expanding beyond print to encompass dress, speech, drawing, and dance, we need to consider how engagement with digital media can include tangible media texts.

Our research focuses on one particularly promising application of tangible media texts called computational crafts and electronic textiles (e-textiles). These include young people's design of programmable garments, accessories (such as jacket patches), and costumes. Such designs incorporate elements of embedded computing (for controlling the behavior of fabric artifacts), novel materials (e.g., conductive fibers or Velcro, etc.), sensors (e.g., light and sound), and actuators (e.g., LEDs and speakers), in addition to traditional aspects of fabric crafts.What follows is a series of 'worked examples' that have engaged the DIY, youth, and research communities alike. A simple sewn circuit project is presented first as an introduction to the materials, followed by a computationally enhanced wearable computer project that uses a small LED display to create a POV wristband, and lastly applications using wearable computers to teach young children about complex systems through game play is presented.


What are we doing?

Computational textiles—textile artifacts that contain embedded computers or are computationally generated—can capture youths’ pre-existing interests in new media, fashion, and design while supporting learning and creativity in computer science, arts, design, and engineering fields. Computational textiles are part of a small but growing and lively body of research investigating innovative ways to blend computation with traditional crafts (Eisenberg, 2005, 2002; Buechley et al., 2006). We believe that computational textiles have several features that make them especially compelling to young people in our target age group, namely teenagers and “tweens” (10-13 year olds). Fashion plays a vital role in the lives of many, but particularly in the lives of youth, who are discovering and defining their identities, identities that are publicly announced through their clothes and accessories (Moje, 2000; Sefton-Green & Reiss, 1999). Electronic devices—mobile phones for example—are increasingly significant fashion accessories, functioning as status symbols both through their monetary value and their ability to advertise social connections (Jenkins et al., 2006).

What is the LilyPad Arduino? 

diagramThe LilyPad Arduino kit enables novice engineers and designers to embed electronic hardware into textiles (Buechley, 2006a; Buechley et al., 2008; Buechley & Eisenberg, 2008). The LilyPad Arduino kit (Figure 2) is a set of sewable electronic components, including a programmable microcontroller and an assortment of sensors and actuators that allows users to build their own soft wearable computers. Users sew LilyPad modules together with conductive thread. To define the behavior of constructions, users employ the popular Arduino development environment, enabling them to program the LilyPad microcontroller to manage sensor and output modules employed in their designs (Joliffe, 2006; Arduino, web-2008). The LilyPad was released as a commercial product in October 2007 (SparkFun, web-2008). Since then it has been widely adopted by designers and engineers of all ages from around the world. It is now sold in several countries and it has been employed in a number of universities in computer science, engineering, art and design courses. 

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  • @ 01/31/11 15:07 EST on Page: BeeSim: Participatory Simulation Application - Reply - Flag(0)

    Using computational textiles to offer a first person
    perspective of a complex system is a really interesting idea.  It appears that the use of this technology
    allows further insight into the capacity of young children to think complexly,
    while simultaneously affirms Vygotsky’s notion of ZPD.  From this example, there seems to be a link
    between one’s perspective or position within an activity system, and the rate
    at which they move through their ZPD.  In
    particular, when one is engaging within the system (key functioning mechanism
    of the system where their participation holds consequential implications to the
    overall process), do they start to think in fundamentally different ways.


    From using BeeSim, have students displayed qualitative differences
    in the way they think about other complex systems?  

  • @ 01/31/11 15:28 EST on Page: Sewn Circuit (e-textiles) - Reply - Flag(0)

    What are some of the common misconceptions of
    circuitry?  How does teaching circuitry
    though computational textiles help overcome these misconceptions?


    I think it is great that you are creating opportunities for females to engage with
    circuitry.  In particular, does the engineering literature support the lack of female participation in engineering to a fundamental quantitative difference in capacity between men and women's fluency in engineering, or have dominate
    cultures simply favored men as engineers over women? 

  • @ 02/02/11 04:52 EST on Page: BeeSim: Participatory Simulation Application - Reply - Flag(0)

    The BeeSim puppet helped children explore their first complex system by
    using this technology, therefore other systems have not yet been
    explored as of this date.  More can be read about the original study in
    the paper The BeeSim Game: Leveraging Wearable Computers in
    Participatory Simulations with Young Children which can be downloaded
  • @ 02/02/11 21:34 EST on Page: Sewn Circuit (e-textiles) - Reply - Flag(0)
    Thank you for your questions.  There has been a great deal of research done in the area of misconceptions associated with circuitry, therefore to list even the “common” misconceptions would be difficult.  However, the approach that we have taken was looking at the earliest misconceptions a child may have, so we could see what is happening per say on the “ground level” of a child’s understanding of circuitry.  What we found was the importance of connections, that is while youth may be taught small individual pieces of information (i.e. importance of the battery for energy), they may not have the big picture (the importance of the flow and battery connectivity to proper poles).  By approaching circuitry with this big picture and the importance of connections/flow in mind while planning activities, we allowed the children time to physically play with these connections through the use of 3D manipulative LilyPad parts.  It’s our belief that in manipulative play with these parts and having time to reflect on the connections (through hand sewing and correcting mistakes), as well as sharing information with their table mates, youth were able to show significant gains in their pre and post tests of the working circuit, connections and flow. Even though our project is in an early stages of analysis, we are vey optimistic and see extreme promise in e-textiles as an alternative to teaching circuitry to youth.
    According to research, there are multiple & complex reasons why the engineering field is lacking female engineers, however a difference between gender capacity for fluency is not one of them.  The question of female compatibility within a preexisting “engineering” culture may be more inline with one possible reason why females opt to choose other careers.