Make 3: Wearable Computing

The area of wearable computing is growing fast. Technologies from Google Glass to Samsung Gear are attracting a lot of attention world wide. I’ve been interested in this area for a while and in the last couple of years have become acquainted with wearable platforms such as the Arduino Lilypad and Adafruit’s Flora. In this post, I will describe an interface I designed with my good friend Natalie Comeau this summer. I’ve mentioned this project, named LuvBug in a previous post, but here I will go in a bit more detail.

The original idea was to design something that would promote people hugging each other. While we were thinking of doing an interactive project for the Harvest Festival, the idea became more general and possibly more applicable to everyday urban situations. I have always found urban environments alienating. While the anonymity one feel in large cities is celebrated by some and has its charm, it can be suffocating at other times! The onslaught of modern devices (smart phones, tablets, …) seems to make everything worst, as people don’t even make eye contact on public transit, let alone make conversation or physical contact.

Thinking these things over, we decided to come up with a hugging jacket that would transform its wearer into a creature of a fictional future where people (hopefully!) have turned into creatures that have augmented their bodies such that they are more expressive of their emotions. Since hugging can produce positive emotions, these would be externalized as music and light effects, encouraging other people to hug each other! In more technical terms, we wanted to create a wearable interface that would encourage physical contact and disrupt the flow of everyday urban life.

Obviously, the idea is more playful than practical, but we like playful! The hugging jacket soon became a hugging hat that was augmented with programmable LED lights, these were sown onto a hat I had bought a few years ago in Florida and were connected to an Arduino microcontroller (after I blew up my fancier but apparently more fragile Flora board!) and a power source.

The hugging was detected by a Makey Makey unit which was connected to the wearers body through long wires with alligator clips. Each time somebody hugged the wearer, a dangling alligator clip would touch his or her body and a connection would be made, this would cause music to be played out of a backpack that contained my labtop and for a light show to happen to the LED lights around the hat. (Technical note: I used the LPD8806 library on the Arduino side to control the lights and on the Java side used the serial port communication protocol to send signals to the Arduino, this was facilitated by the RXTXComm jar library. I used a little program called InsomniaX to prevent from my laptop to go to sleep when the lid was closed. If you use this program please make sure you check your laptop occasionally so that it doesn’t heat up too much!)

Screen Shot 2013-10-16 at 10.03.29 PM

After many a-debugging sessions, I finally got the programming down and we took the project to Maker Faire where we had a lot of fun with the crowds. One thing I found out was that people had a much easier time hugging my friend Natalie than myself 🙂 Here are pictures from the event:

Screen Shot 2013-10-16 at 10.02.39 PM

I had to provide technical support once in a while!

Screen Shot 2013-10-16 at 10.03.06 PM

Follow this link for a video of the project.

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