Which Way to the Ball? I’ll Ask My Gown
A silk top with sparkling LEDs, from Moon Berlin, offers just one example of wearable electronics. In the future, circuitry could allow a coat to display full-length videos, or for a handbag to point the way to an event, aided by GPS sensors within.
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By ANNE EISENBERG
Published: February 26, 2012
RHINESTONES, sequins and gold lamé can still add traditional glitter to evening wear. But if you really want to shine at your next dinner party, consider the sparkle that a jacket with light-emitting diodes or a corsage with fiber optics could provide.
Wearable electronics are starting to dress up gowns, handbags and even tuxedos, and not just in one-of-a-kind costumes worn by the likes of Fergie, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga or other divas.
For the rest of us, designers and others are starting to offer such merchandise online – giving it bling by way of conductive thread, sensors, batteries and small microprocessors. And daytime computerized wearables are on the way, like T-shirts and coats that can show full-length videos or use GPS to point you to your destination.
Moon Berlin, a German fashion label of the company Franken & Bruns, recently opened an online shop that sells chiffon dresses with white LEDs beneath the sheer fabric. The LEDs twinkle softly at first, then shine more intensely as the wearer moves, says Christian Bruns, co-owner of Franken & Bruns. (The batteries are good for 8 or more hours. You can always turn them off if want to save power.)
Already popular on the Web site are accessories like fiber-optic brooches and LED-illuminated clutch pocketbooks. And men’s dinner jackets with a touch of LED glitter are on the way, Mr. Bruns says.
If you want to try your own hand at creating a computerized, electronic glow, Adafruit Industries, a New York company that makes and sells kits and components, will soon introduce a small, wearable microprocessor called Flora to control LEDs or other electronic adornments. Becky Stern, who leads the company’s wearable electronics group, will develop projects and kits based on it for crafters.
“Pop stars have costumes made by ateliers at huge cost,” Ms. Stern says, adding that her company’s products would “let you make these electronic wearables at home for a fraction of that.”
Electronics offer a new dimension to people who design and make clothing, says Kate Hartman, an assistant professor of wearable and mobile technology at OCAD University in Toronto.
“Designers are accustomed to working with texture, color and form,” Professor Hartman says. “But now electronics gives us another avenue of expression.”
In the last decade, the use of soft, flexible circuitry in clothing has grown as technology has improved, she says. Conductive fabric, thread or yarn, as well as microprocessors that can be sewn into cloth, can be found at Web sites like SparkFun.com.
The Flora platform from Adafruit should spur the wearable-computer movement, Professor Hartman says. “It has built into it all of the hardware needed to program,” she says, as well as the ability to link to GPS and Bluetooth, among other components.
One Flora kit, meant for a handbag, will offer a GPS sensor linked to a LED display. “You won’t have to take your cellphone out to check for directions,” says Limor Fried, an electrical engineer and founder of Adafruit. “The bag will have a big arrow to tell you which direction to go.” The kit’s price will be less than $100, not including the cost of the handbag, she says.
A future kit based on Flora will create video displays on the back of a jacket, says Phillip Torrone, a senior editor at Make magazine and creative director at Adafruit. “The display will be low-resolution at first,” he says. “But it will be recognizable as video.”
Adafruit will also develop apps for iPads, iPhones and Android devices, Ms. Fried says. Hobbyists can then make T-shirts for joggers, for instance, that include LEDs that glow red or orange when air quality is poor, with a Bluetooth connection to tweet the information to other joggers.
Syuzi Pakhchyan, who has written “Fashioning Technology,” a book about electronics for clothing, and whose Web site keeps track of wearable-computer fashions, says she thinks many hobbyists will be able to use Flora.
Even those without technical or programming backgrounds, she says, could receive step-by-step help from other users in an online community. Ms. Pakhchyan herself has created a video tutorial on how to make a faux fur set of headphones, a process she describes as “pretty addictive and super-easy.”
Professor Hartman at OCAD says that one of many benefits of adding computers to clothing may be a change in attitudes toward technology. “As people begin to be able to create with technology,” she said, “they are less afraid of it.”
Ms. Fried at Adafruit says she looks forward to a time when people will routinely modify the style of their shoes, jackets, T-shirts or handbags with circuitry. Then, she says, Bill Cunningham, the fashion photographer for The New York Times who has long roamed the streets for the latest looks, will have a new trend to cover: LED fashions.
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