Touch and electronic textiles
I had once more the pleasure to participate at the e-textile summer camp 2017. The event is an annual gathering of professionals and practitioners in electronic textile initiated by the girls from Kobakant.
This year one of the trends was the use of capacitive sensing in textile, and that is the topic of this article.
Capacitive sensing is the ability to measure a material that is conductive. With this data, you can figure out things like touch, proximity, acceleration, fluid level, humidity, etc. This type of sensing is useful for various things including wearables.
Interactive textiles have been used and investigated by institutions, designers, and artists since long ago. Through out the text, I will introduce some of them. This article is far from a definitive list, and I am counting on your help to make it more complete and available. More on this later now let’s go to the projects!
One of the most popular projects is the connected Jaquet by Google and Levis. The project Jacquard hit the news with an interactive jacket that allows, with a simple touch on the sleeve, users to wirelessly access their phone and favorite mobile apps to adjust music volume, silence a phone call or get an estimated ETA on their destinations. I decided to put this project first because it got very famous and I get often asked if Google invented this kind of interaction. The Jacquard Project is undoubtedly a great initiative and an important player on the e-textile field, but nope, they did not invent it. People are working in similar things since some years already.
Back in 1997 at MIT Media Lab. Margareth Orth, Rehmi Post, and Joshua Strickon released the Musical jacket. Also a Levis jacket. It consisted of a touch-sensitive MIDI keyboard embroidered directly into the fabric using conductive thread.
Another example of creative use of this technology is the “Media Vintage” (2009) by Melissa Colman. She explains on her website: “ Media Vintage is a series of interactive electronic textiles that contain memories. Alpha is a suitcase in which you can weave temporary secret messages in Morse code. Bravo is a tapestry that sings a song from long ago when your fingers read the embroidered Braille. Charlie is a trench-coat that reads fabric punchcards and tells you stories from an old man’s life.”
Melissas’ Media Vintage inspired me to experiment with this technology during a residency at Taipei artist Village in Taipei (Taiwan) in 2010. I created the performance Pinyin that deals with traditional music and textile. In this performance, I collected fragments of music from different tribes in Taiwan and connected them to an electronic system embroidered in a garment. The performer could, then, interact with the clothing by touching the decorated areas. When this happens, small speakers embedded in the garment broadcast the traditional music of that particular tribe. When the performer reaches 2 points at the same time the music from 2 tribes is mixed. This experience is an exploration of music, tradition, through body, and touch.
Kristi Kuusk and Martijn ten Bhömer from Eindhoven University of Technology in The Netherlands created in 2013 the Vibe-ing. Vibe-ing is a self-care tool in the form of a garment, which invites the body to feel, move, and heal through vibration therapy. The merino wool clothing contains knitted pockets, embedded with electronic circuit boards that enable the garment to sense touch and vibrate specific pressure points on the body. According to Kussk, The aim of this design was to inform a multidisciplinary audience about the opportunities of integrating textile and vibration for self-health care services at home and in everyday activities.
The Dutch designer Pauline Van Dongen also made a jacket with Dennin and traces of conductive thread. She explains that “Through bodily sensations, this jacket encourages you to be present in an increasing accelerating world in which our mind is often focussed on future events.” I had the chance to see this jacket in the Fashion Forward exhibition in Paris, and I can tell you that it looks amazing!
Another project that got very popular for its novelty and simplicity is the Duo Skin by MIT Media Lab and Microsoft Research. It is a fabrication process that uses golden leaves as sense input device, to display output and to communicate wirelessly with other devices. Differently, from other smart patches used in a medical environment, this project is inexpensive and takes advantage of the maker’s culture that commonly repurposes materials and techniques.
Melissa Coleman also released a temporary electronic tattoo as part of the “e-textile swatch book in 2015. She used copper foil cut in a vinyl cutter machine in a very similar technique. However, in Melissas’s experiment, there was a place for the battery already on the design eliminating wires to connect to electronics as seen in the Duoskin project.
Talking about the skin, I can not forget the guys from Bare Conductive. Bare Conductive is a game changer in the capacitive sensing because they developed a conductive ink that is easy to use, works great and can be used in silk screen, paint and even on the body. And on top of that, they designed a board with implemented capacitive sensing that is so easy to use and has a fantastic result.
Many wearables use Bare conductive to create interactive sound clothes. Check the funny “John Paul George and me” by Studio any.
One can get very creative in finding unexpected conductive materials to build a capacitive interface. However, the advanced part of capacitive sensing resides on the ability to interpret the collected data. Things start to become interesting when you have control of the data and can make sense out of it.
An impressive project that takes capacitive sensing to a whole new level is the Touche sense project by Disney. Touche project ( Touché: Touch and Gesture Sensing for the Real World) is a sensing technology that proposes a novel Swept Frequency Capacitive Sensing technique that can not only detect a touch event but simultaneously recognize complex configurations of the human hands and body during touch interaction. The researchers were able to identify rather complex gestures and interactions. Imagine a piece of fabric that can act not only as a traditional mouse pad but can also detect pinch, grab and other gestures related to cloth manipulation. According to the inventors, this technology could lead to the idea of Zero UI (zero User interface), transforming the body into an interface to digital input information. No more screens!
The Touche project is a proprietary technology, but there is also an open source version of similar technology developed at California Institute of Arts and Victoria University of Wellington. You can download the paper here.
The “Advanced Functional Fabrics of America” — an initiative from the MIT — selected the knit capacitive touch sensor (CTS) as one of the main projects to be developed. The Knit Capacitive Touch Sensor (CTS) is a gesture sensitive functional textile touchpad interface for physical devices developed at the Center for Functional Fabrics (CFF) at Drexel University. The CTS is produced as a single piece of fabric requiring only two electrodes to connect it to a microcontroller. The CTS offers a solution for a flexible touch interface with consistent location detection, responsiveness, comfort, and unobtrusiveness. It is robust and can sustain daily wear and tear. It is also washable.
Got inspired by all those projects and technologies but don’t know where to start? A good first step is to use an Arduino to create your capacitive sense interface. The popular open source microcontroller has a library for capacitive sensing that is easy to use and pretty much straight forward.
If you feel more adventurous and need more features, you can download the touch library written by the amazing Admar Schoonen and shared during the e-textile summer camp.
Many other wearable pieces use capacitive sensing, and I am curious to know new ideas and uses of such exciting technology. If you know, some other adorable projects, please leave a message in the comments and if you have a bit of time add it to the open document on this link:
The idea is that everybody can add information to create a comprehensive list of e-textile projects a sense of touch that all of us can update, share and use.
A big thank you to my dear friends that helped me by suggesting projects and giving input for this compilation: Anouk Wipprecht, Ralf Jacobs, Rene Pare, Maria Rios Araya, Jonathan Chain Reus, Marije Baalman, Philip Stearns, Scott Janousek and Kristi Kussk.