eTextile Spring Break Tackles Signal Blocking, Audio Generation, and Radio Transmissions

Finding a killer application for e-textiles is the realm of the hacker and within that realm, anything goes. Whether it’s protecting your digital privacy with signal shielding, generating audio with a wearable BeagleBone or 555 timer, or making your favorite garment into an antenna, the eTextile Spring Break is testing out ways to combine electronics and fabric.

You may be asking yourself “What are e-textiles good for?”. Well, that’s an excellent question and likely the most common one facing the industry today. I’m afraid I won’t be able to give a definitive answer. As an e-textile practitioner, I too am constantly posing this question to myself. There’s an inherently personal nature to fabric worn on the body and to our electronic devices that makes this answer elusive. Instead of trying to fabricate some narrow definition, what I offer is a look at topics of interest, material experimentation, and technical exploration through the lens of a week-long event held recently in New York called eTextile Spring Break.

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Bumblebee Breakout, a DIY Wearable Connector

The practice of developing wearable electronics offers a lot of opportunity for new connector designs and techniques for embedding electronics. Questions like these will eventually come up: How will this PCB attach to that conductive fabric circuit reliably? What’s the best way to transition from wire to this woven conductive trim? What’s the best way to integrate this light element into this garment while still maintaining flexibility?

Mika Satomi and Hannah-Perner Wilson of Kobakant are innovators in this arena and inspire many with their prolific documentation while they ask themselves questions similar to these. Their work is always geared towards accessibility and the ability to recreate what they have designed. Their most recent documented connector is one they call the Bumblebee Breakout. It connects an SMD addressable RGB LED, such as Adafruit’s Neopixel, to a piece of side glow fiber optic 1.5mm in diameter. On a short piece of tubing, the four pads of the SMD LED are broken out into four copper rings giving it the look of a striped bumblebee. To keep from shorts occurring while wrapping the copper tape contacts around the tube, they use Kapton tape to isolate each layer as they go.

This connector was originally created to be used in a commission they did out of Koba, their e-textile tailor shop located in Berlin. Fiber optics were applied to jackets for a performance called “All Your Base Are Belong To Us” produced by the Puppetry Department of the Hochschule für Schauspielkunst Ernst Busch.

Peruse more e-textiles techniques and learn how to build a connector transitioning from an embroidered thread bus to a wire and how to knit solderable circuit boards. And make sure to click around Kobakant’s website, it’s full of e-textile DIY tutorials! 

Your Next Wearable May Not Need Electricity

What if you could unlock a door with your shirtsleeve, or code a secret message into your tie? This could soon be a thing, because researchers at the University of Washington have created a fabric that can store data without any electronics whatsoever.  The fabric can be washed, dried, and even ironed without losing data. Oh, and it’s way cheaper than RFID.

By harnessing the ferromagnetic properties of conductive thread, [Justin Chen] and [Shyam Gollakota] have  proved the ability to store bit strings and 2D images through magnetization. The team used an embroidery machine to lay down thread in dense strips and patches, and then coded in ones and zeros by rubbing the threads with N and S neodymium magnets.

They didn’t use anything special, either, just this conductive thread, some magnets, and a Nexus 5 to read the data. Any phone with a magnetometer (so, most of them) could decode this type of binary data. The threads stay reliably magnetized for about a week and then begin to weaken. However, their tests proved that the threads can be re-magnetized over and over.

The team also created 2D images with magnets on a 9-patch made of conductive fabric. The images can be decoded piecemeal by a single magnetometer, or all at once by an array of them. Finally, the team made a glove with a magnetized patch of thread on the fingertip. They were able to get the phone to recognize six unique gestures with 90% accuracy, even with the phone tucked away in a pocket. See it in action in their demo video after the break.

Magnetic memory is certainly not a new concept. But for the wearable technology frontier, it’s a novel one.

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Get You an E-Textiles Sensor That Can Do Both

[Admar] is a software developer who was introduced to e-textiles in 2011. The bug firmly took hold, and these days he gives e-textile workshops at Eindhoven University of Technology. Here, students learn to build a single e-textile sensor that detects both presence and pressure. The workshop presentations are available on his site, which is itself a window into his e-textile journey.

Over the years, [Admar] has discovered that any e-textile project requiring more than a few connections is ripe for some kind of textile-friendly multi-point connector. Through trial and error, he designed a robust solution for use with an embroidery machine. The wires are made from conductive thread and soldered to a row of male header pins to make the transition out of fiber space. This transition requires solder, which quickly gets interesting when coupled with a fabric substrate and no solder mask. We wonder if spraying on mask beforehand would help, or if it would just soak in and stain and get in the way.

You can see the connector in practice in [Admar]’s capacitive multi-touch demo video after the break. He has stacked two pieces of fabric, each with a wire bus made of conductive threads, with the traces at right angles. Both sensors are wired to a Cypress PSoC5 to create a sensor matrix, and then to a laptop for visualization purposes. As his fingers approaches the fabric, the bar graphs roar upward to show increased capacitance. Once he makes contact, each finger appears as a yellow dot illustrating pressure.

E-textile projects aren’t limited to traces sewn by hand or embroidery machine. Circuit boards can be knitted, too.

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Go Big or Go Home: A Tablecloth Touchpad

Phone screens keep getting bigger. Computer screens keep getting bigger. Why not a large trackpad to use as a mouse? [MaddyMaxey] had that thought and with a few components and some sewing skills created a trackpad in a tablecloth.

The electronics in this project are right off the shelf. A Flora board for the brains and 4 capacitive touch boards. If you haven’t seen the Flora, it is a circular-shaped Arduino made for sewing into things. The real interesting part is the construction. If you haven’t worked with conductive fabric and thread, this will be a real eye-opener. [Maddy’s] blog has a lot of information about her explorations into merging fabric and electronics and also covers things like selecting conductive thread.

As an optional feature, [MaddyMaxey] added vibration motors that provide haptic feedback to her touchpad. We were hoping for a video, but there doesn’t seem to be one. The code is just the example program for the capacitive sensor boards, although you can see in a screenshot the additions for the haptic motors.

We’ve covered the Flora before, by the way. You could also make a ridiculously large touch surface using tomography, although the resolution isn’t quite good enough for mouse purposes.

Smart Sutures

Researchers at Tufts University are experimenting with smart thread sutures that could provide electronic feedback to recovering patients. The paper, entitled “A toolkit of thread-based microfluidics, sensors, and electronics for 3D tissue embedding for medical diagnosis”, is fairly academic, but does describe how threads can work as pH sensors, strain gauges, blood sugar monitors, temperature monitors, and more.

Conductive thread is nothing new but usually thought of as part of a smart garment. In this case, the threads close up wounds and are thus directly in the patient’s body. In many cases, the threads talked to an XBee LilyPad or a Bluetooth Low Energy module so that an ordinary cell phone can collect the data.

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Making Mittens For A Smartphone

For those of us in the slightly inhospitable parts of the northern hemisphere, it’s freaking cold outside. Spring can’t come sooner, and smartphones won’t work if you’re wearing normal gloves. Smartphones will work if you sew a few bits of conductive thread into your gloves, but if you prefer mittens, you’re out of luck. That’s alright, because [Becky] at Adafruit has great guide for knitting your own smart phone mittens.

Intellectually, the concept of weaving fabric is fairly simple – it’s just interlaced threads that form a flexible sheet. Sewing, too, is fairly straightforward. Knitting, on the other hand, is weird. It’s a single string tied to itself that forms a 3D shell. If you’ve ever picked up a pair of knitting needles, you’ll soon realize whoever invented knitting is perhaps the greatest forgotten genius in all of human history. Lucky, then, that [Becky] has a lot of links that go through how to knit, and how to turn yarn into a pair of mittens with this pattern.

To make these mittens work with a smartphone, [Becky] is using a stainless conductive yarn stitched into the thumb and fingertips of the mitten. It works, and now you can use your touchscreen device no matter how cold it is.

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