Organic Xanax — an exploration into embedded fashion

Samantha C Ho
Mar 29, 2020 · 11 min read

This was a line designed for Lunar Gala 2020 in collaboration with Arden Wolf and technical help from Jake Zimmer. This line pokes fun at our generation’s relationship with consumerism and social media while featuring embedded custom LED hardware.

Here I will go through the conception, the process, and the execution of the ten look line.

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sketches of the looks and where we began

First when developing our concept, we knew that we wanted to integrate LEDs, but in an intentional and seamless way that didn’t distract from the clothing itself.

A good portion of the garments feature cheeky quotes found on Overheard. We chose Overheard because it takes what people are caught saying and pulls it out of context, allowing the reader to clearly see the humor and, almost, stupidity in the things we say to each other. In few words, we can sum up many people that each of us know. The quotes we chose are intentionally dry and lighthearted in spirit, but also exemplify our apathetic, almost privileged, attitude towards our culture. For example:

“You went to Burning Man, not Iraq. Calm down.”

The Grant — Frank Ratcheye Studio for Creative Inquiry Research Grant

When applying for a grant, we decided to focus on a few key looks that we knew would cost more. We used to money for custom hardware and light up materials that would be featured on the garments. This included flexible LED displays, a custom PCB for the hat and the fiber optic fabric.

Making the Bag

We had the idea for an LED display bag pretty early in the process that featured a 32 x 32 LED matrix display. As one of the garments featured

“Did you just assume my milk preference?”

So to keep on the look’s theme, we took another quote:

“Oat milk for your latte?”

and decided to feature it on the bag. We would integrate an accelerometer to detect tilt and then displayed pixels to look like liquid.

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original concept/form exploration

We began by lasercutting the pieces and calculating how far an angle we wanted the bulk of the bag to come out to. This then drove our remaining dimensions for when we needed to assemble the bag.

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lasercut raster, process of heatbending the handle

After cutting the parts, it was time to heatform the handle. I personally, like to sandwich the acrylic I’m working on in between two sheets of cardboard and then clamping it to the table to ensure I don’t have an scratches or marks resulting from the heating process. I then slowly heated up the bending axis over the course of 30 minutes and then took another minutes to coax the handle into a smooth bend.

To integrate the accelerometer, we attached an MPU 6050 to the bag to detect tilt. We chose the MPU because it was a very cost-effective option to get accelerometer data into the arduino.

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MPU 5060 test with LED display

After assembling the bag with the display, we realized that we would have to mess with the calibration of the MPU to better behave like water. Especially due to the angle the model would have to hold the bag at comfortably, the pixel movement wasn’t natural until we skewed the calibration. Since there are maybe 100+ tutorials to get LEDs working on this specific display with Arduino, I’m just going to include the MPU calibration code that we edited and ended up using here:

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fully calibrated bag

Making the Hat

We wanted to create a boots and hat look where the ambient light from the scrolling text on the underside of hat could light up our models face. This in addition to scrolling text boots were going to make up an entire look for the line.

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Original Concept for Boots and Hat

We thrifted an existing fedora hat and then began designing the board that would go on the underside of the hat. We used Autodesk Eagle to design the board and then individually rotated each LED to make concentric circles around the center. This entire process took over three days of board design alone. From there we placed the order and could only wait for the manufacturer to get back to us.

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This was an interesting practice in PCB design, in that I had never designed a board this big before and had to come up with various versions that were a bit more space efficient(to go as far as making a modular 8 piece version of the hat). After some deliberation, the singular board, while massive, was still the best option.

This was also interesting because our board manufacturing got seriously delayed due to the Corona virus, so by the time we received the board, we only had about two days until the show.

Arduino Hat Strand Test

Once we had the board in our hands, we had to get to work assembling all the LEDs as well as uploading code. We decided to run all the code off a Teensy 3.0 and got busy soldering 750+ LEDs by hand.

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heating the solder paste and one of many rounds of hardware debugging
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final LED hat

After a tedious and excruciating night of trail and error, by morning the hat was functional and ready for assembly. We stashed the Teensy and a lipo battery in the top of the hat and assembled for our model to walk in that night.

Final text:

“Can we breakup somewhere else?”

To finish off this look we made a simple black tube romper out of jersey knit and then focused on our next challenge: the boots!

The Boots

For these, we used a distressed navy leather to match other elements in the line. We began with a pattern and got busy on the assembly.

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cut the pattern, nailing to sole, testing the LED matrix that slots into the boots.

To get the fit right, we studied existing shoes and built off of this research to create a silhouette we liked. Then came to sewing and establishing how the boards would run wirelessly.

The final model actually broke down on the runway and from this we learned a brutally simple lesson. Make sure all your batteries are charged. After the show, we checked and the connections were solid, the soldering was unbroken, it was entirely a battery issue. In hindsight, this is very disappointing for a complex project to be thwarted by such an easy issue.

Final Text on Both Boots:

“This is my favorite Whole Foods.”

Other Scrolling Text Garments

I had had the scrolling text code ready to upload for months as it was a pre-existing arduino library specifically for 8x32 displays. Below is a Gist that is virtually identical to the code I ended up uploading to my Arduinos (I used a variety of Arduino Uno and Teensy 3.0).

We had created both of these looks without the hardware as we thought it would likely be the simplest to integrate.

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sketch of hardware integration, both looks with virtually no hardware, none.

At this point we decided it would be best to sew tulle sleeves for the boards to sit in. We used the soldering iron to burn holes for where the wires connect to the contacts and then sewed the tulle sleeves, with the boards inside, onto the garments. Because tulle does not offer any structural support we lined each side with boning for a more seamless integration onto the garment.

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We had some extra time so for these looks, we made some additional accessories to add to the humor and concept.

“Do you have any pods?”

“Juul or Air?”

Since the guy’s look poked fun at Juuls and Airpods, we decided to be pretty literal with some of the accessories. First we cut heat transfer vinyl of the Juul pod box and created a mesh sleeve for an EL panel to be inserted behind it to put on the guy’s bag.

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We learned throughout this process that EL panel is actually a pretty good way to illuminate complex graphics. Before we thought that getting LED displays and displaying animations was going to be the best way to highlight graphics on our clothing. Unfortunately because displays are rather rigid and cumbersome to be integrating into soft goods, EL panels turned out to be a very reasonable alternative.

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We still had some time for a quick arduino project utilizing an Adafruit Gemma M0 I found laying around. I knew I could use the 16 pixel Neopixel ring for each earring, so I got working.

Some drawbacks I saw to working with the Gemma were the fact that it isn’t naturally compatible with regular Arduino compiling. I combed through a series of tutorials that taught how to install the Gemma M0 specific boards and drivers. Adafruit has a good tutorial as to how to get this done. Overall, this only really took an afternoon. The code can be found here.

Since the quote we selected for the coat was:

“She’s as volatile as bitcoin.”

Making the Fiber Optic Dresses

This one was a bit tricky in that we knew we wanted to put graphics on top of fiber optics but the question was how? In the other garments, we heat transferred vinyl graphics directly to the fabric. Unfortunately, we learned the hard way, if you take an iron to fiber optics they will shrivel up almost immediately. The heat will melt and destroy the fibers entirely.

So we had to get a bit creative when it came to lighting these graphics.

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We decided to cut an adhesive backed stencil and then hand paint over the whole thing. This was not at all an easy process either because the fibers optics themselves did not adhere to the vinyl in an encouraging way whatsoever. In addition to this, we had to be extra cautious with smaller pieces like the dots of i’s and punctuation because the vinyl would just cling to the paint passing over it. To also add another level of complication, the fiber optics were such a sparse weave that the paint wouldn’t fully block light with just one coat.

Four coats of thick acrylic paint later, we could finally see some results and tested our theory.

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Luckily the fiber optics showed through enough for us to continue with the look. What’s tricky with fiber optics is that they need a bright, concentrated light source. We ended up repurposing a pocket flashlight and then fused the ends of the fiber with abs solvent.

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fiber optic fabric dress
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fiber optic dress (just the fibers)

In hindsight, the fiber optics were no match for the stage lights and it was a problem I should’ve foreseen. We also learned that abs solvent doesn’t do a good enough job of fusing the fibers together. While it did work for a couple rehearsals, the fiber optics by the end were very brittle right around where we used the solvent and began to deteriorate after a couple uses.

If I were to do this project again, I would’ve 3D printed custom capsules to ensure a solid and reliable fit between the fibers and the flashlight.

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In conclusion, this was an incredibly rewarding experience where we could push ourselves both in our soft fabrication as well as our hardware skills. We were constantly challenged to think on our feet and really allow the design concept to speak first, not the tech. As a technology project, it’s easy to get caught up in the complications and potential with technology. Arden and I were very weary to not use technology just for technology’s sake and with our end result, we think we stayed true to it.

Big thanks to the Carnegie Mellon’s Studio for Creative Inquiry for funding this fulfilling experience and Lunar Gala for giving us the platform to share our work.

This post only scratches the surface, so if you would like to watch the full show, and I really encourage you to do so, you can find it here:

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