Computational Textiles and E-Fashion
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?
The 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.