The science fiction reality
For all their talk of breaking glass ceilings, Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton have nothing on Leah Buechley.
In the several years since she first sewed a circuit board to a T-shirt, the 31-year-old University of Colorado computer-science researcher has done a lot to bring gender equality to the world of do-it-yourself, perhaps shattering a certain silicon-based ceiling once and for all.
"The tinkering group has always been a boys' club," says Buechley, referring to the DIY movement's loosely formed factions of tech geeks, gear heads and circuit wizards who tinker with electronic gadgets in basements and garages across America. At the same time, she says, the arts-and-crafts contingent (think knitters, sewers and silkscreeners) has traditionally been a more feminine domain.
Crafting meets tinkering
But that is changing. With the advent of newly available "crossover" materials, such as conductive thread that acts like electrical wiring and a microcontroller that Buechley invented to be embroidered onto fabric, it has become easier to do both. Crafters are starting to solder, and tinkerers are learning to sew.
image © Robyn Twomey
The result is a proliferation of wearable technology on the pages of the how-to websites, books and magazines that serve as rendezvous for the DIY community.
Presumably, this particular marriage of tech and fashion also means an increase in the number of men and women walking the streets donned in blinking jackets, glowing handbags and beeping brooches, parading one-of-a-kind fashion statements known collectively as "wearables."
True to their fashion roots, DIY wearables are not always practical. A recent tutorial on Instructables.com gives readers a step-by-step for making what the author calls a "wearable waste of energy": a sweatshirt affixed with a glowing light-emitting diode (LED).
"It's not purely functional," says Syuzi Pakhchyan, author of the new book Fashioning Technology. "It's functional and aesthetic."
In her book, Pakhchyan describes the nuts and bolts - or rather, the yarns and volts - of making your own wearables, starting with the necessary tools and materials. They include crafting materials that can transmit electrical currents, like conductive threads, fabric and epoxies; so-called smart materials that sense and react to their environments, like thermochromic inks, magnetic paint and heat-shrinking tubing; and now-cheap solar cells, sensors and LEDs. ("Who needs diamonds when you have LEDs?" Pakhchyan writes.)
image © Robyn Twomey
Pakhchyan points out that fashion, high-tech or not, is about broadcasting your identity and making connections with other people. Thanks to the rise of online social communities, the connections made around wearables have been quick and far-reaching.
"I don't want to take too much credit," says Buechley, "but my LED shirt was one of the first do-it-yourself wearables out there." She made the shirt - a tank top covered with 140 LEDs that she programmed to blink on cue - in 2005, when the materials were hard to find and tutorials on wearable technology were virtually nonexistent. Buechley posted photos and a description of the shirt on her university-hosted website, "and people just found it."
While Buechley still makes a habit of trawling craft and electronics websites for new and eclectic materials, she is increasingly able to find many of her materials in the same place. One of those places is SparkFun Electronics, which started in 2003 as a small online supplier of circuits and breakout boards for engineering students.
"We have really seen an explosion in the crafter world," says Nathan Seidle, the company's chief executive. Seidle says SparkFun's revenue has grown from $1.8 million (£1.0 million) in 2006 to an expected $6 million (£3.4 million) this year.
image © James Pattern
In addition to selling gear, SparkFun has embraced the open spirit of the DIY movement by posting forums, project tutorials and hardware schematics on the company's website - all of which has helped convinced technophobes that working with electronics is no longer for "true geeks," Seidle says. "We're bringing down the barrier of entry," he says. "We're bringing together a lot of different worlds."
One barrier that has put DIY high-tech wearables out of reach for all but the most experienced tinkerers is the difficulty of incorporating sophisticated computers into clothing. But that, too, is changing. Earlier this year, SparkFun began selling the LilyPad Arduino, a cute-looking circuit board and microprocessor that the company designed with Buechley.
Buechley developed the LilyPad - which can be programmed with open-source software and sewn with conductive thread to LEDs, accelerometers and temperature sensors - while she was doing doctoral research on how to get girls interested in computers.
Over the past several years, she has held workshops to teach girls how to design and make wearables using LilyPad prototypes. At the end of a workshop this summer, the girls told her that programming their projects was easier than sewing them.