Learning About Wearable Engineering While Trying To Un-Taboo A Topic

When you build a machine you can usually count on having precise dimensions for an organized and orderly set of parts, one fitting into the next exactly as you have designed them. You can count on cause and effect — when the user pushes a button or flips a switch a specific behavior will take place. But the She Bon project shows that adding the human body to the mix quickly turns an easy design into a challenging one.

During her Hackaday Superconference talk Sarah Petkus discusses her latest project that uses wearable technology to sense and react to her own body. She Bon is reminiscent of the French for “so good” and is a project whose aim transcends the technical challenges. Sarah uses engineering as a way to facilitate adults having healthy dialogs with one another about sex.

Depending on your profession, this discussion is likely not appropriate for work — it’s not sexual, but it’s fundamentally about sex — so don’t click through the video without thinking twice. But we respect Sarah’s courage for leading a project that wants to make sure there actually are places where it is possible to have these conversations and a way to get them started.

How Do You Begin an Intelligent Conversation?

Mixing an engineering challenge with a somewhat taboo topic works surprisingly well, as you can see in the video below. It’s a technical talk about sensing body temperature, heart rate, galvanic response, blush response, facial expression, and muscle tension. But it’s also a story of her attempt at creating a Suit of Amour, her tongue-in-cheek “Sexual Gundam”. Don’t be fooled, this is no gimmick. The discussions quickly leads to the real life challenges facing prosthetics designers and those developing wearable products. There’s a ton to be learned here.

Join me below for more on the hardware covered in Sarah’s talk. This out-of-the-ordinary hardware creation adventure made it a great entry in the 2018 Hackaday Prize and a particularly delightful talk at the 2018 Hackaday Superconference. We’re once again on the hunt for hardware creators to present at the 2019 Hackaday Superconference — and we can’t do it without you. Submit a talk proposal, or just grab a ticket and join us in Pasadena this November. Bonus points for those who have also entered their projects in the 2019 Hackaday Prize. Okay, now onto the hardware talk.

Hardware to Sense and React to Sensuality

The level of aesthetic Sarah is able to achieve in her prototype hardware is simply amazing. Throughout the talk she shows examples of her electronics and their enclosures, often through several iterations, and they’re both functional and beautiful to look at. If you learn nothing else from this talk you should leave with an appreciation for her habit of choosing an aesthetic at the beginning of the design so that it may evolve to perfection during hardware development.

Case-in-point is the backpack which serves as the brain for She Bon. It’s heart-shaped with a pixillated motif that provides plenty of places for Molex connectors to interface RJ45 jacks. From there, patch cables make a simple link with sensor and actuator modules elsewhere on the body. Sarah discusses three of those satellite units (which she calls augments), how they were conceived, designed, and the state of the prototypes.

Her Beat Box augment links heartbeat to a speaker that can playback audio. It’s a feedback loop for arousal — one of the “extra credit” goals she set for the project. The Propeller Pasties sense breast arousal with IR distance sensors and use propellers that spin as an external indicator. Spinning planetary gears were inspired by a toy and make granular speed control much easier. For control she has the wrist-mounted Pop Girl user interface — a nod to Fallout’s Pip Boy — that uses a Raspberry Pi and touchscreen inside a 3D printed enclosure. The Hot Spot augment is a temperature triggered buttocks winch that raises a particularly difficult challenge: how do you mount things to a living body and how do you ensure you don’t injure yourself in the process?

Sarah is the perfect speaker for this topic. She’s fun, she’s artsy, she’s scientific, she’s matter of fact with a flair of double entendre, and she has the technical chops to do the engineering. She makes you feel like you’re on the team and normalizes the conversation so anyone into tech feels both comfortable with the discussion and excited to see how the technical hurdles have been approached. In short, this talk shows the manifestation of her goal has already begun: for adults to have a healthy dialog about sex.

28 thoughts on “Learning About Wearable Engineering While Trying To Un-Taboo A Topic

  1. This right here is an excellent way to foster discussion and promote social change using technology and engineering. I’ve seen this project before but i’m still glad it came up, its awesome.

    1. Here’s some discussion:

      Double standards. If a man goes around in public expressing his sexual interest, he is a creep (unless he’s really hot). Direct expressions of male sexuality are usually considered harassment. But, when a woman builds a machine that spins propellers to show when her nipples get erect, that’s important social discussion and not at all offensive, unless you’re a religious prude.

      I don’t think this changes anything. It’s still the same old thing where women want to show off to gain attention and admiration from the opposite sex, but equal response by men is still considered offensive and/or intimidating. In simplistic terms: walk around in your underwear – complain that men wolf-whistle at you.

      1. Now, there’s an important related point to the topic: one can argue that historically men had the upper hand while women were not allowed to display sexuality in public. Men could pinch bottoms and women were supposed to be virtuous.

        But the sexual revolution happened 50 years ago. It seems to me that we went straight through sexual equality all the way to the opposite swing where women are starting to get all the freedom and social license, while men are increasingly held up to higher and stricter standards – except if the man in particular happens to be sexually and socially desirable to women.

        1. ” It seems to me that we went straight through sexual equality all the way to the opposite swing”. I think that’s where your problem is. We didn’t go through sexual equality. This is still a male-dominated world and country (America) so you’re working under a false premise. Sincerely hope you reconsider your position and allow for growth. Good luck

        2. Most of us did not live through any of that, so the only reason it matters is as a learning tool. We also tend to forget that literally every industrial complex we have benefits from breaking up family units. More people live alone so there’s more money into housing, perpetually single people, more cosmetic sales, eating out more often, when families are broken up, the prison system benefits greatly, it also helps cement men into high risk jobs that they have to work at literally until they die, higher taxes come from breaking up of families, more car payments, more insurance, more gas consumption (all based on split custody), and more people that are forced to work any job they can get for a lower pay because they don’t have a traditional cellular family unit to depend upon. There really isn’t anything good about polarizing our social interactions and creating massive rifts between genders. I think that a lot of people just need to give one another the benefit of the doubt when it comes to things that rub them the wrong way, and I think that we should also try harder to understand when we rub people the wrong way. You know it’s bad when people go to comedy clubs and start yelling at the comic….. seriously, your opinion is mal-informed garbage, sit down, and pull your sense of humor out of your ass and use it, please. :-D

          now that we have that solved, we can move on to more pressing matters… like the fact that human civilization won’t exist for anyone to gripe about… well, anything.

          please note that the use of ‘you and your’ are used in a ‘you understood’ fashion, meaning that i’m not talking to anyone directly, because in a forum, ‘you understood’ doesn’t work… as it’s more of a verbal rule that you gain from tone, eye contact, and body language.

  2. What part of the civilised world are sex and matters related to sex taboo? I’m not sure what she is trying to achieve here, maybe I’m not in the right part of the world for this to make any sense. Regardless, good luck to her and hope she does achieve what she wants.

    1. I live in England, sex and sexual matters are taboo here. I’ve lived in Germany, sex and sexual matters are taboo there. I’ve spent time in North America, sex and sexual matters are taboo there. Certainly that’s a western preconception of the world.
      I’m sure there are places where sexual acts are less taboo, but I’m still not sure there’s anywhere with a frank and open conversation about sex.

      1. Love to know where did you spend time in “North America” … what countries that will be …

        As for such a vague geographical definition might be the “taboo” definition as well.

        Those afraid of something create taboos.
        Mostly do not exist.

        1. Well, most of the south central to south eastern area of the united states is socially conservative evangelical Protestantism, and having visited there i can mostly confirm that sex is rather taboo. Most of the united states is rather conservative when it comes to sex which makes sense considering that a large group of puritans were what made up the pilgrims in the 1600’s.

          Canada is a bit more liberal (Ontario resident here) but sex is still rather taboo as can be seen not only by how much confrontation we have about our sex ed classes but it can also be seen in our treatment of sex workers. Quebec may be even a bit more liberal than ontario but Canada as a whole could be considered conservative when it comes to views on sex.

          I dont know much about Mexico as i haven’t had a chance to travel too much down there.

          As for the original comment, Sex is still taboo in most of the world, from the east to the west. A whole lot of countries exist where you cant even embrace your sexual identity if it strays from the norm. Then look at the places where contraceptives are either hard to get or shunned, usually because the idea is that sex is meant for procreation only.

          1. Well, for North-America, it’s more than the north/east of the continent are more liberal than south/west. Ontario and Quebec are extremly liberal comparatively to Texas. Quebec (i’m from Quebec) is a weird beast, with extremly liberal and conservative people mixed in the same town, Ontario, you can see the difference between the eastern (more liberal) and western (more conservative) part of the province.

            Rural areas tend to be more conservative, urban areas more liberal. But in Quebec, It’s not as clean cut as Ontario, you have major cities like Montreal which are very liberal, while others like Quebec City or Sherbrooke being very conservative with part of the town being more liberal. But if you compare Quebec City to Montgomery Alabama, Quebec City is way more liberal overall.

            You can’t say that Canada is overall more liberal than the north of the USA like New-York or Vermont, they are pretty close in values, with a North-South division for the USA between Liberals living in the north and conservative in the south, while in Canada it’s more a East (liberal) vs West (conservative) division.

            Of cours there are exceptions like California and British Columbia, which are overall more liberals than their neibough.

        1. So, a hard lesson for me in life was that being good at science and such didn’t make make it any harder for me to be a moron, and caring what other people think (and feel!) proved to be a good way to be a moron less often.

          Perhaps not caring what other people think and feel is how we perpetuate injustice, rather than some inoculation against it?

          If I was half as smart as my teenage self thought I was I’d probably have a definite answer to that :)

  3. I too don’t understand the need for the “discussion” but the project looks interesting and she seems to be having fun wrangling the issues of blending the meat machine with the hardware. That in its self makes it worth while.

    1. Well for quite a long time most religions preached the ideas that sex was for procreation only and enjoyment of sex was taboo and would keep you from the blessed afterlife which was a form of their control over said population (and im talking about Abrahamic religions because they are the most predominant ones). These religions and their ideas have had a profound impact as to how we as a society view sex, from shunning sex workers to stifling sexual education and contraceptives. As such I personally see the need for society to start having discussions about the subject, who knows, we might be able to actually address issues such as people feeling that they can tell other people what to wear or how to act (sex can be safe and fun and great stress relief).

      Until the time where people are ok letting other people do things that dont affect them in the slightest then there will always be the need for discussion.

  4. Awesome. Needs much more research. Lots and lots of research. Now if can get women to actually wear it. Goes a long way to female interpreter/translator for men who dont actually ‘get’ many of the subtleties. An app and/or more idiot lights would be helpful. An actual speech translator may help as well in combination. Sure it sounds like the same language but its not.
    Many interesting engineering problems. Butt winch.- Now the Petkus Postulate of Ass Grabbing. P2AG engineering.

  5. Practically everywhere. Us Europeans might be tempted snicker at the thought of USian (or Saudi, FFS!) prudishness, but that would be a big mistake, because we’d forget about the mountain of homework lying around in our own backyards.

  6. That was charming and wonderful. Sarah is a brave lady to put on these devices and make a presentation like this to a room full of guys in our society, and her commitment to the idea of sexual communication is inspiring.

    1. >”is a brave lady to put on these devices and make a presentation like this to a room full of guys”

      Are you implying male human beings are savages and you cannot be in a room with them?
      Seriously, please be sensible, consider your words true meaning and rephrase before posting.
      a human male being, non-savage

      1. Basically everyone who gets up in front of a room of 400 strangers is brave. But you gotta admit, men or women in the audience (and there were both), Sarah’s presentation was out there with live demos of wireless devices in terms of bravery.

        That said, the crowd at Supercon is the best. If there’s anywhere to give this talk, it’s Supercon. You couldn’t ask for a higher density of intelligent, enthusiastic, and encouraging folks.

      2. Considering that my own limited spark of net dot fame — which took considerable self-reflection to put in the public eye — was writing The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect, I’d say it should be pretty obvious that it’s not just male humans that I think are potentially violent savages. We are what we are, and while our greatness is our ability to defy that it is also a great danger to confront that part of other humans’ nature.

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