English version of an article in EHESS Techniques&Cultures journal #67, 2017.
As shown by the vast literature in this field, ( Mc Quaid “extreme textile”, Quinn “textile future”) the association of textile and electronics was born in a military context, in order to answer the performance needs of soldiers garments. Paradoxically, in the same moment, some researchers thought of different applications for these technologies, not focused on their rational efficiency but more on their creative potential, as shown below in this image of one of the first “wearable” circuit, developed by Rehmi Post and Maggie Orth in a physics research lab (MIT Center for Bits and Atoms or CBA) funded by NSF and DARPA (defense advanced research agency) in which public money originally dedicated to security research was also used for creative uses — in a very similar way than the context in which the Internet and Human-Computer Interaction were born in the sixties at SRI (Stanford Research Institute).
I describe in this article some of the researches of these people, that i had the privilege to follow and work with throughout the last ten years. I documented their practices and their environments by taking photographs, slowly constituting a picture archive of thousands of images. In order to clear my debt towards them, this archive was shared from day one on Flickr so they could use these shots to valorize their projects but also to make legible to them in the first place the fruit of their work.
In 2006, Leah Buechley, then a doctoral student at Boulder University in Colorad, came to visit my lab at INRIA while I was doing my own PhD there. She brought with her many prototypes implementing the techniques developed by Rehmi Post in his master thesis at the MIT Medialab in 1999 . Here is a plastic socket knotted and sawn with conductive thread on a textile substrate. This socket hosts a microcontroller, the electronic component that allows to program electrical operations to its legs, for instance measuring an electrical resistance value in a circuit.
Another essential component for electronic textiles is the availability of technical fabrics in order to conduct current in a good way. An american company called LessEMF (less electromagnetic field) distributes textile supposed to protect from noxious waves (for people hypersensitive to waves). The textile presented here is called Zelt, a woven nylon taffeta then copper and tin plated. Numerous other fibres exist, from the more natural ones (Organza) to extremely techical ones coated with nanomaterials.
Using a lasercutting machine, Leah cut out conductive traces from Zelt. The fabric traces were then thermo-fused onto a nylon mesh. The machine, also known as a lasercutter, is very precise for repetitive tasks that allows to cut a whole bunch of materials such as textile but also wood, acrylic… The socket is then soldered on these traces and plunged into epoxy to make the connections more solid. It can host a microcontroller ATMEGA168, which at that time was still difficult to program by people not trained in electronics. A whole software tool-chain had to be installed on a computer, often with the use of proprietary software, preventing its mass adoption by non-experts like tinkerers.
On the picture below, we see at the bottom a design by Leah in red, a “charlieplexed” bracelet made with sawn LEDs (ElectroLuminescent Diods). This matrix of 5x10 LEDs is controlled by a microcontroller with limited number of legs, not enough to connect 50 LEDs. It is then required to adapt to this limitation by using a trick that, according to the legend, was invented by Charlie Allen, an employee in an electronic assembly line. On top in blue, two rigid electronic boards. One can notice that they are still connected one to each other. It is because they are pre-production prototypes that i brought back from Italy where I was teaching at the time at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea.
These boards, as well as their software programming toolchain initally called Wiring and based on the Proce55ing project will then make a revolution in the electronic world, allowing non-experts to program interactive devices. Their name, Arduino, comes from the self-proclaimed italian king Arduin of Ivrea, and their planetary expansion is based in part on their ‘open-source’ and free hardware model as well as the ingeniosity of their design. Leah flew back to the US with these boards and their integrated development environment that would allow her to establish the foundation of her own version of the Arduino board, dedicated to electronic textile, the Lilypad Arduino.
In this picture we see a flexible version of the Lilypad Arduino board. This very sophisticated design by Leah Buechley condensates the previous techniques and concepts (connection, epoxy, lasercut zelt traces…) to finally produce a round shape, flexible, washable and sawable patch. This ‘board’ has to be connected to power with conductive thread, leading to a final assembly that is soft. Rigidity is often the byproduct of the production process. Square shapes optimize the space used to produced large amount of boards. On the contrary, round flexible patches are optimized for humans not for machines. They need to be manipulated to be understood: they are at the size of the hand.
On the upper photo, Leah visits in 2006 the textile workshops of ENSCI school of design in Paris. While interacting with other designers and hackers, most of the situations and examples discussed where also shown with hand postures physically representing metaphors, tools or concepts. In addition to verbal language, Leah’s hand gestures produce meaningful representations, they are genuine cognitive artefacts (in the sense of Becvar, Hollan & Hutchins ). As we see here, her hands also hold components like threads or electronic devices, facilitating her expressing complex assemblies at a different scale or electronic concepts by giving them ‘life’.
In addition, the hands are very present in semi-mechanised textile production. The machines need a lot of manual operations, as much opportunities to touch them, feeling the tension of a thread, being aware of its global state, almost in sympathy. Likewise, electronic textile requires not only to access abstract concepts but also to embody them. This difference with the evolution of electronics and informatics that classically tends to dematerialize from its substrate ( invisible technology ) seems remarkable to me. Electronic textile is concretely manipulated, ‘programmed’ with the body, resisting in this the abstract mediation of software languages (HAL) and descriptive schemas (HDL) preceding the materialisation of circuits.
During a workshop about hacking usual interfaces at the school of art in Aix-en-Provence in 2007, I brought a yarn of conductive thread for “hands-on” experiments. This school, a pioneer in the use of real-time electronic devices for art in France was using boards they designed and produced themselves. This picture shows one of the results: a textile antenna, measuring capacitance. By approaching the hand more or less close to this DIY sensing antenna, the electromagnetic field is modified, allowing to measure the distance from which we are from an object.
Device hacking was usual at that time but even though some prototyping platforms existed like the Basic Stamps, it was tedious to repogram or repurpose daily life objects. This picture, taken in a parisian hackerspace called BlackBoxe, which was at the time located at the Théatre de Verre (Glass Theatre) illustrates different levels of hacking that i called in my 2007 PhD thesis as technological “exaptations” which designate creative reconfigurations that co-evolved between the users and their objects.
In february 2008, during a workshop at Mediamatic, an art & technology center in Amsterdam, we introduced these platforms to citizen, most of them art and design students but also curious people, interested by the intertwining of textile and interactivity. This workshop, called “Hybrid Wearable”, was using for the first time in Europe the Lilypad board freshly developed by Leah, in an exploratory context, focused on learning and DIY. On this photo, a sensitive rug in the making, with plastic and metals wires preceding the step of sawing with conductive thread.
On this picture we see two persons collaborating to check the electrical continuity of the circuit they just sewn. This is a very unusual situation in electronics where things are planned in advance, and operations executed by individuals. Here two human beings cooperate and coordinate inside a gigantic electronic circuit, as if they literally entered a cybernetic interaction loop, belonging to the system.
In addition to Lilypad microcontroller boards, Leah also designed a series of smaller intermediaries formats called “breakout boards” that let connect more easily standard components such as here a small vibror. These flexible devices are directly connected to a deformable, foldable and porous substrate — unique characteristics in the world of electronics usually rigid, deterministic and closed.
Here is the fabrication of a touch sensor with Flectron, a textile similar to the Zelt. When two parts are pressed one against the other, an electrical contact is formed. It is a giant version of a pressure sensor, an electronic component usually coming from an industrial fabrication process. Electronic textile reinvents components at the scale of humans, not machines.
This workshop participants wanted to build a jacket that would gently indicate to people in the bus that are too close to you to take a bit more distance. They recycled a fan from a discarded PC and hooked it to a distance sensor. It is remarkable to see how the tangible aspect of textile let them build this piece in a very short time.
On the edge of this sleeve, participants have smartly build a position selector with a broach in metal, hence conducting electricity that can close a part of the circuit. The circuit is concretely legible, fingers can touch it, the body can register in it unlike an abstract representation.
What is characteristic of electronic textile is to combine mechanical assembly details with electronic processes. In this exhibition called “Mechanical Couture” at the Design Museum near Tel-Aviv, we can see clearly how this decorum was put in place. On the contrary to traditional electronics where things happen in “blackboxes”, here things are displayed, manifested, ready to be examined.
This ‘decorum’ is also visible on the wall behind Hannah Perner-Wilson, then a student in 2009 with me at the MIT Medialab. Like in her exhibition at the Design Museum, we can see here how the materiality of textile plays a determinant role in the dissemination of her works, as did her website created for the DIY community called How to get what you want
In 2009, Hannah and Leah came to Paris at Arts Décos school to co-animate a workshop with Dana Gordon, Dave Mellis and myself on the topic of “Hybrid Materials”. The process and renderings of the workshop were public. These workshops were then re-conducted on following years on similar topics such as textile serigraphy (Electronic Serigraphy in 2011) or objects with ‘misbehavior’ (Rebellious chairs in 2012) and then were integrated into the regular curriculum of the school as studio and modules co-animated by students who were participating to these workshops. Hannah will then develop a nomadic practice, setting up her workshop-suitcase in the institutional jungle as well as in the one of Madagascar, sawing electronic circuits into plant leaves.
After ten years of observation and lecturing in this field, it seems to me that where Hightech electronics requires an abstraction capacity in order to figure out how miniaturized circuits work, here in this HighLowtech textile environment, the hand and the body are literally part of the circuit. A situation known as feedback, since the early days of cybernetics. Taking this idea of resonant circuit and sound from oscillators, or feedback machines, an electronic we designed a kit based on this principle for a class of interaction design in Art Décos school. The circuit, called Textilo, is a classic 555 based sound machine turning variation of resistance into audible frequency is intended to introduce electronics to students, in a constructivist way, by building it by themselves, a process facilitated by the caracteristics of electronic textiles that can be easily worked with compared to traditional electronics.
As the observer cannot remove himself from the observed element, he therefore experience a paradoxical situation, self-referential, similar to Garfinkel facing the rational limits of his epistemology (Working Out Durkheim’s Aphorism) or Russell facing mathematical antinomies (The philosophy of logical atomism).
Electronic tinkering with conductive textile hence facilitates a non-rational kind of thinking. This “material thinking” anticipates forms not based on a deterministic objectivity but on uncertain subjectivities, which stumble as i did in a recent workshop at Akademie Schloss Solitude. By embodying humans into technology, this practice replaces belief with experience.
In a way, textile substrate favorizes “playing” as Roberte Hamayon defines it in her book Why we Play , which is to do something else, elsewhere
and otherwise, and this in an indefinitely renewed manner.