Interview by Marija Butkovic @MarijaButkovic
H. Lee Wainwright is a technology consultant for creating E-Textiles, often referred to as 'the grandfather of e-textiles'.
He created and continues to create E-Textile fashions for designers and celebrity performers, LED/Optic displays for dark rides, environments, and parade costumes for Disney properties in USA, Japan, and Hong Kong. Commissioned to design LED/Optic displays for several Fortune 100 companies. He won Honorable Mention for an E-Textile Display designed for the military listed in the Top 100 entries in NASA’s 2012 “Design the Future” Tech Brief contest (1000+ entries from 60 countries).
He is Vice President of Research & Development JFMagic, L.L.C. Product Design Firm where he invented several fabric based light emitting technologies with over a dozen patents using state of the art flexible solar cell devices, deep cycle and Ion-polymer rechargeable batteries, mega-capacitors, and software controls to minimize current requirements. H. Lee Wainwright is also a Vice President of Research & Development ANI-Motion, Inc., where he directed R&D department refining machine processes for imbedding PMMA optical fibers into various surface strata.
Aside from teaching Science, H. Lee is a Science Teacher at Neshaminy Secondary School District where he set up a multi-channel cable broadcasting network throughout the school and taught students how to run the studio channeled into 72 classrooms. He set up and created science curriculums and designed an Independent Cross-Disciplinary Learning Curriculum for three grade levels and implemented it for a successful two-year case study.
H. Lee, how did I get into this industry?
In 1984 I saw a fiber optic lamp on sale as I walked through a Spencer Gifts in a mall. I thought if I inserted optical fibers like those into a shirt to define images, then sequence them to create a cartoon on a shirt, it might be a fun way to attract women to actually approach me. I was very shy and needed some way to get noticed. Basically, I invented the technology to attract a potential girlfriend so I made a T-Shirt with palm trees swaying in the wind with car wheels turning. I had a friend of mine wear it to a nightclub and left with 2 dozen business cards from people pleading with me to allow them to invest in my invention.
So I applied for a patent and got it. I then created a sweatshirt with a dragon spitting flames morphing into a bird that flew to the back where an erupting volcano was spewing fire up towards Pegasus flapping his wings. That drew a lot of attention, but it wasn’t until 1993 when I completed the first machine that installs fiber optics into materials and received two patents on the manufacturing process. I went on to teach companies how to create their own machines. Those patents have expired so anyone can now produce LED/optic displays without paying royalties.
What are / were challenges of the industry?
Many challenges await every entrepreneur. The first is money. That comes when a well-seasoned and experienced team is placed into a business plan that attracts good investors. However, I am not without my initial failures and there were some big ones. Without going into details, it’s never a good idea to parcel out responsibilities to friends on a napkin with promises of royalties for work who then do nothing but wait until the time is right to go after “not so well thought out” promises with a pit-bull ambulance chaser.
The biggest physical challenge was simply that there was no manufacturing process in place to produce the displays cost-effectively. Having a machine changed the game and we started producing apparel pieces (i.e. Jackets and caps), Disney parade costumes and dark ride applications to point of purchase signs in the thousands. The biggest obstacle we had was convincing people that wearing electronic components would not harm them. Limited Too sold 10,000 pairs of jeans in their stores with a LED/optic rainbow and MACY’s sold jeans that had invisible lips on a back pocket that appeared out of nowhere to throw a kiss and disappear again over 15 years ago. However, new laws in some countries prohibit lithium batteries, wires, and electronics to be discarded in landfills so I invented a new technology that is controlled by smart phones and removable from apparel leaving only optical fibers in the clothing, the same fibers surgeons use to look inside blood vessels. You don’t get safer than that.
How long did it take you to be where you are now? What was the biggest obstacle?
Time. I was way too far ahead of myself in 1985 with technology that no one understood and was fearful of it. It has taken over two decades for people to become comfortable with wearing electronic devices. We are at a juncture in time now where the explosion of E-Textile apparel is reducing that fear as evidence by Google, Apple, and Amazon entering the playing field with their own research and potential offerings.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
My opinion may differ from others, but if I were to pick a few:
Over a dozen patents & awards from trade shows to NASA ‘Design the Future’ prize winner
My name is on a gold disc in the Mars Lander though I doubt anyone will ever discover it
Invented machines and technologies for safety, medical, military, and entertainment markets
Working with world class designers, Hollywood celebrities, the winter Olympics ceremony costume designers, and Disney parades and dark rides adding LED/Optic displays
Invitation to submit a chapter for a college textbook on E-Textiles (released 2017)
Licensing patents to companies and teaching designers how to install LED/Optic displays
What projects are you working on at the moment?
I’m creating the Opti-Coupler, the removable device that controls the color displays in fabric via smart phones to license to a designer purse company. I’m presently setting meetings with Fendi, D&G, and some others in the hope of convincing one that this device is the best solution for a purse. With a Louis Vuitton purse that has a simple LED screen behind his logo selling for $50,000, my opti-coupler does everything and much more for under $100 and since the purse has nothing in it to replace that will fail like an LED screen, no purse will ever have to be returned for repairs.
The opti-coupler can potentially do dozens of operations (i.e. Indicate who’s calling your phone by changing color routines on the surface of a purse, alert text messages and who is sending them, find your phone, alert the owner AND the public if the purse is being stolen, respond to ambient music to become a synchronized light show, turn to the color of anything that the smartphone is pointed towards or change manually with the touch of a finger on a color wheel, alert via color routines of a sale from any company chosen by the purse owner, charge other devices, and much more).
I’m conducting LED/optic display workshops for students and teachers in high school, colleges, and universities for them to learn how to install and control fabric attributes with smartphones.
I’m especially interested in identifying designers who would like to show their creations in my booth next year at 2019 CES in Las Vegas using an opti-coupler to control graphics on a fabric surface creatively.
In your opinion, what will be the key trends in the wearable tech and smart textiles industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
The key markets for E-Textiles are in the medical, safety, and military sectors. I’ll focus on those markets next year due to their obstacles including certifications, government and DOT red tape, and presently focus upon entertainment and fashion which has none of those issues.
With so many companies entering the field with body sensors measuring pulse, ECG, and other biophysical data, recording it and graphing it for individuals, health monitoring is becoming a big market. Clicking on an icon on a smartphone to see how grandma (or any family member) is doing even if they’re in South America right now will be one trend. I demonstrated this in 2006 in Washington DC with Dr. David Bychkov, inventor of the biophysical sensor watch (predating Apple smart watch). I created a display to show the state of health on a denim jacket via color routines and motion graphics.
I’m working with a company today that will release a smart fabric composite that converts sunlight into a frequency of IR radiation that reverses cellulite and eliminates it over a few months. I think these type of discoveries will become the outstanding achievements in the arena of smart fabrics and E-Textiles.
Who are your 3 inspirational people in wearable tech and smart textiles?
Dr. David Bychkov (Research Consultant, UCLA, California)
Robert Dornick (CEO of International Robotics, CT)
Dr. Lijing Wang (Professor of Fashion Technologies, RMIT, Melbourne, Australia)
LinkedIn: H. Lee Wainwright
This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, founder and CEO of Women of Wearables and co-founder of Kisha Smart Umbrella. She regularly writes and speaks on topics of wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT, entrepreneurship and diversity. Visit marijabutkovic.co.uk or follow Marija on Twitter @MarijaButkovic @Women_Wearables @GetKisha.