By Michelle Hua @MadeWithGlove
Leslie Birch is a Philadelphia technologist using open-source hardware to grapple with environmental issues and physical connection. Her toolbox includes Arduino microcontrollers and sensors as well as tree cookies and moss. Recently she created an ISS Notification Pin—a pin that does a red, white and blue light display when the International Space Station flies by. Wearable tech fans also know her award-winning FLORAbrella color-sensing LED umbrella. She creates projects and tutorials for Adafruit, a DIY electronics company, and also blogs about wearables and citizen science. She’s also a space geek and a founding member of the NASA Datanauts.
With a background in communications, how did you get into wearables and the maker movement?
There were two events happened that made me tech curious--one was attending Make magazine’s NextFest in NY. I was introduced to robots and interactive tech that just kept me in a state of awe. The other was getting invited to be a fellow with the University of the Arts in a program for exploring the virtual world of Second Life. Learning how to manipulate avatars and build in a 3D world was actually my first intro to coding. You could say that was the prequel! That rabbit hole eventually led me to three guys starting a hackerspace in Philly--The Hacktory. That’s where I had my first Arduino class. It was like, “Now experience the power of a fully functional microcontroller”. I loved it.
With Adafruit being one of the biggest inspirations in wearables and e-textiles, how did you end up making projects for them?
I had recently had a workshop with Leah Buechley, inventor of the Lilypad Arduino, so I was already thinking about wearables and soft circuits. Around the same time, Adafruit and Element 14 partnered for a wearables challenge. You had to take a Flora Microcontroller kit and create a project. I’m a big sci-fi fan and I never forgot about the cool umbrellas in the movie Bladerunner. I decided to make that idea even better by creating an umbrella with LEDs that would match the color of the wearer’s clothing as well as create other fun patterns like rain and rainbows. My FLORAbrella ended up winning and Adafruit asked if I would create a tutorial. I decided that I liked the work and became a freelancer for them. I’m still there blogging wearables and citizen science, as well as creating tutorials.
You have worked on many projects, which has been your favourite?
Ooh, that’s so tough because each project is so much a part of me. I would have to say my favorite project is still the FLORAbrella. There was such excitement in drawing the first sketch and see it come to life. I still have that feeling with each of my projects because they all start as sketches. Sometimes I even get the idea when I’m in the middle of meditation and I have to run for a piece of paper and a pen. Anyway, there is something about this project that is found in all of my projects, which is clean lines and respect for the circuit. I am fascinated by modern art and graphic lines. So, the LEDs and wiring are really motivated by the shape of the umbrella. I wanted the wiring to be invisible as well as the microcontroller. I remember making paper origami type models of the vinyl hammock that would hold the microcontroller and render it invisible when in an upright position. The finished tutorial doesn’t include this method because it takes more time, but my original has it. I also 3D printed a handle for my umbrella that has an illuminated button at the bottom. Again, it’s more work so it’s not included in the tutorial, but it is beautiful. #projectsecrets
Which project has been the most challenging?
My latest tutorial for Adafruit is an International Space Station Notification Pin. Basically the pin is a ring of NeoPixels around an image of our planet Earth. Normally the pin shows a white comet-like streak of light orbiting Earth, but when the Space Station flies overhead, the LEDs will do a red, white and blue NASA light show. It’s an Internet of Things for space geeks project that I love, and it’s been five years in the making. The idea is actually based on a project that a friend and I created for a NASA Space Apps Challenge called the ISS Orbit Skirt. The prototype skirt has LEDs around the hemline that suggest the orbit of the station, and it received 3rd place in the challenge. I knew one day that microcontrollers would be able to connect with live data, yet be small enough for wearables. The Particle Photon was the handy microcontroller that made it a reality, but it took me some time to figure out how to get the code to work out, and also how to make the pin simple enough to be made without a 3D printer. I like projects that are accessible so anyone can make them.
What new projects are you working on?
First, I’m working on creating a copy of the ISS Pin for the head astronomer of the Franklin Institute here in Philadelphia. He was one of the judges that loved the Orbit Skirt and asked if there would be a “male version available”. I can’t wait to give it to him! I’m also involved in two projects--one is a wearable around the theme of Urban Armor tieing into fellow artist Kathleen McDermott’s project.
Another project involves citizen science and art examining stormwater runoff as viewed from aerial maps. There will certainly be technology involved in the finished artwork, but I’m letting the research guide me for the finished project. Sometimes my inspiration comes from the electronic parts and sometimes the situation. In this case, an environmental issue is certainly influencing my direction. In fact, more and more of my work is going towards environmental issues, and especially climate change. I’m finding Arduino and technology to be relevant, both as part of the problem and a solution. Sensors are vital to monitoring change.
Being based in Philadelphia, what is the wearable tech scene like there? How do you find your inspiration?
Philadelphia is known as a software city, but we are starting to grow with wearables in the medical field. Our tri-state area is heavily influenced by pharma, so that makes sense. I operate more on a creative level than an engineering one, so I’m always looking to answer the question, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if?” I think you find this same thinking with MIT or other places that value thinking differently. If you can dream the impossible, there is likely a way to make it happen. Many useful products have started out as whimsical ideas until someone realized there was a practical side. Thinking differently requires surrounding yourself with many views, so I’m part of a global village of inspiration. Some of my favorite work is being done in Berlin, Barcelona, the Netherlands, France and NYC. In fact, I think Berlin is my top location right now because they really understand how to invite collaboration there. I’m always looking for ways to connect with people abroad.
How are e-textiles related to wearable technology? Is there a difference?
I know the word tech scores excellently for SEO, which means labels are handy for marketing, however, I don’t find them very useful for creative thinking. Good design needs to be based on the user and the environment as well as sustainability. So, what I really care about is a reaction like, “This is so easy to use”, “This makes so much sense”, “I can’t even tell that it’s on my body” or better yet, “Wow, this is going to produce its own energy?!” Actually I love that last one.
How do you keep learning about wearables because it is constantly changing with new technologies?
Ack! I recently told someone how much I miss reading for the sake of enjoyment. Nowadays I’m always reading about new microcontrollers, scanning new Kickstarters or just checking my media alerts. I would have to say that DIY sites like Adafruit, Hackster.io, Instructables, Element 14 and Sparkfun are where I spend most of my time. Checking out the latest work at labs at top universities is also a fave pastime. Watching TED talks or non-related subjects is also inspiring and I often find links whether it be AI, neurology or even a new perspective.
What do you think will be the key trends in the wearable tech in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
I think the biggest changes we are seeing now are embedded tech where things are pre-woven into textiles, pre-fabbed in flexible materials or produced within living things. That last one, bio-couture is going to be big for the future. Tech is not sustainable and the push for greener processes that complete the circle of production are going to be needed if we are going to save this planet. Fashion is one of the largest polluters, so wearables are going to need to go greener in order to keep pace with this much needed movement. I think part of that plan will be modularity so that less electronics can be placed into more wearables, or even more bio-hacking where the electronics are embedded directly into humans. As someone that cares about the environment I’m facing the challenge of this conflicting balance in my own life. How can we live with less? When do we really need tech? Now we are seeing the rise of tiny homes, so how does this translate into tech, energy and consumption.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to people who want to learn about wearables and make their own projects?
Yes you can, oh yes you can!!!!
If an 8 year old can solder and cut and paste code, you can too! It all starts with baby steps and any Instructable or DIY electronics site can start you off. The trick is to pick something simple. If you want immediate results I’d look at Adafruit’s Circuit Playground microcontroller that has easy examples for its LEDs and sensors which are built in. If you are looking for a quick craft project, I would look at the bookmark project found online for the book Sew Electric. Electronics is a lot like learning about the natural world and I’m always led by Rachel Carson’s words of developing a “sense of wonder”.
Who are your 3 inspirational women in wearable tech?
Don’t hate me, I have four! Leah Buechley: Got me started with her passion and wonderful invention, LadyAda: the lovable engineer/head of Adafruit, Becky Stern: my main mentor from Adafruit and Instructables and Maria Castellanos: an artist successfully bringing wearables and environmental issues together.
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