IEEE Women in Engineering Group’s Electronic Clothing Projects Hit the Runway

Models wore garments and accessories embedded with accelerometers, gyroscopes, LEDs, and microcontrollers

8 July 2016

How do you get people excited about engineering? If they’re fashionistas you might have them design clothing embedded with electronics that they can show off at fashion shows. That’s what the IEEE Victorian (Australia) Section’s Women in Engineering group did.

The group launched a wearable technology project that sought to attract fashion designers, programmers, engineers, and students. The project included training sessions on designing e-textiles and wearable electronics, along with how a microcontroller would work. The group also organized sewing classes and programming marathons to create working designs, and held a fashion show, last August, that attracted hundreds of people. Models walked the runway dressed in garments and accessories embedded with wearable components, including accelerometers, gyroscopes, LEDs, and microcontrollers.

And after the show, the WIE group was asked to create wearable technology designs for a cultural program held the following March that explored how art and design can intersect with technology.

“It gives us a great sense of achievement when we see a student’s eyes light up,” says IEEE Member Eehui Lim, organizer of the fashion show and chair of what IEEE named the 2015 WIE Affinity Group of the Year.

LEARNING LILYPAD

The WIE group began work on its wearables project in 2014 after Member Enn Vinnal discussed the possibilities of LilyPad, a kit of sewable electronic modules. The kit includes an Arduino microcontroller, accelerometer, sensors, batteries, a gyroscope, LED lights, and buzzer. The components can be stitched together in fabric with conductive thread to create garments that feature electronic effects. The sewable microcontroller is at the core of a system that can sense information about the environment using inputs from, say, light and temperature sensors, and respond with LEDs and other outputs. A circuit can be sewn into a shirt, a backpack, or anything soft.

Through 2014 and 2015, WIE members and student members held nine workshops on computers for beginners and others at university campuses in Melbourne, including Deakin, Monash, and RMIT. The WIE group also held five classes on wearable technology projects for high school students as well as a workshop on the topic at the Australian Biomedical Engineering Conference held at Melbourne University. A workshop also was held with fashion and graphic design students at the Academy of Design Australia.

DESIGN AND E-SEWING 101

Once trained, participants were ready to design garments and accessories and start sewing. They did so at the E-Sewing/Wearable Technology Hackathon last July. The first of its kind, the hackathon was held jointly by the WIE group and the Victorian Section’s IEEE Computer Society chapter. IEEE Region 10’s WIE group provided money for the LilyPad components, conductive thread, needles, and fabric. Some participants brought their own garments to accessorize with electronics. The eight-hour event attracted programmers, fashion designers, and preuniversity students. Engineers from local companies were on hand to assist with the designs.

E-sewing is a bit different than regular sewing because of the conductive thread. It can be difficult to work with because it unravels easily after a stitch is knotted. And care must be taken not to let threads accidently make electrical contact with each other. But the needles are ordinary ones, and so are the stitches. Typically, two basic sewing maneuvers are used: the running stitch and the backstitch.

Components for a circuit are laid out first on the fabric to ensure they’ll fit. After they’re sewn to the fabric, the completed design is tested.

“Our youngest participant was only 13 years old,” Lim says. “Her ability to understand the program and apply rapid changes to the code was astonishing.” She designed a simple circuit for a cup cover that lights up when the cup contains hot liquid.

Designs that came out of the hackathon included a smartwatch that displays the time only when the wearer’s wrist is raised. The designer has since added an analyzer to the watch strap to measure the alcohol level in the wearer’s breath. Also unveiled was a T-shirt that relies on Bluetooth technology to turn on LEDs when the garment receives a signal from another device. LEDs were sewn around a hat, too, so its wearer could see and be seen in the dark. Next came the fashion show.

HITTING THE RUNWAY

To show off the garments made at the workshops and the hackathon, the WIE group held the Energised Fashion Runway show in August during Australia’s National Science Week at RMIT University’s Storey Hall. In conjunction with the show, the group partnered with the Academy of Design Australia to hold the country’s first Wearable Technology and E-Textile Challenge for fashion designers, programmers, and tech innovators. The top three designs each received 500 Australian dollars. More than 30 designs were shown and about 250 attended the show.

First-place went to a dress patterned with a cage of hands lit up with twinkling LEDs. Second place went to a dress that lit up according to the wearer’s  movement; accelerometers and a gyroscope identified the body’s rotation and translation. The third-place went to a handbag whose long straps were embedded with LEDs that displayed rainbow patterns when the purse was swung from the shoulder.

Other entries included a cocktail dress with a pulse sensor and LEDs to indicate the wearer’s heartbeat, a motorcycle jacket with LEDs in the sleeves to indicate the direction the vehicle is turning, and boots that display a heart pattern when walking.

Last March, the WIE members teamed up with students from the Academy of Design Australia to participate in the annual Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival’s cultural program. A total of 15 designs were modeled. During the event’s Electronica collaboration, the IBM Watson Internet of Things platform processed sensor data received from one of the IEEE team’s dresses and displayed it on IBM Bluemix, a cloud-based application-development platform.

Such collaborations, Lim says, could help ensure that wearable designs “include the elegance and ease of use that would drive their acceptance.”

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