Smart textiles: Lilypad Arduino, the heart of clothes that can ‘think’

Smart textiles: Lilypad Arduino, the heart of clothes that can ‘think’


Smart textiles are a greatly unknown category within the wearable devices that are revolutionizing contemporary technology. Everyone is talking about e-health bracelets or smartphones, but very little about those clothes that are designed to 'think' for themselves by incorporating electronic material. And for this progress, Arduino hardware is vital.

This open hardware, which consists of a motherboard with a microcontroller and its own development environment, is a hot technological trend. It’s the open hardware par excellence and the most robust alternative to developing under patent.

Its five founders, David Cuartielles, Massimo Banzi, Gianluca Martino, David Mellis and Tom Igoe, began the project in 2005 with the only intention of teaching Electronics to their students at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea. Today it’s a cheap platform with all the necessary elements to develop projects, and very useful for wearables or the promising Internet of Things.

Lilypad Arduino for smart textiles

Within this trend of open hardware, one of the most outstanding projects is Lilypad Arduino, a set of electronic components that can be sewn into textiles to provide them with interactivity through sensors, lights or sounds. In order to do this we need different electronic modules, including a programmable microcontroller, an electrical conductor and some kind of power supply.

The added value of Lilypad Arduino, thanks to the potential of the Arduino hardware, is the ability it gives textiles to detect information about the environment, by using light, motion or temperature sensors. And this allows the textiles to react to environmental changes (shine like a Christmas tree thanks to LED lights, react to vibrations, generate a sound after a stimulus, etc.)

A visionary future of fashion: e-textiles

The creator of this electronic kit is Leah Buechley, an engineer, artist and educator. Until 2013 she was a professor at the MIT Media Lab, where she led numerous projects related to smart textiles. Buechley is an expert in the creation of open technologies to enable people to develop their own projects, and Lilypad Arduino is the maximum exponent of her professional contribution in this field. The commercial version of this technology was designed by Buechley with the help of Sparkfun Electronics.

The first models of her kit, which later became known as Lilypad Arduino, were born in 2006 as personal prototypes designed for her classes. These initial experiments ended in a university research called ‘A Construction Kit for Electronic Textiles’, in which Buechley, member of the Department of Computer Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, shared here investigations with e-textiles. The study analyzes some of the original projects made with the Lilypad Arduino kit and some experimental tests.

Buechley+ Sparkfun Electronics +Arduino=Lilypad Arduino

The spark that started the 'Lilypad revolution' was the Do It Yourself (DIY) movement, the Maker culture, and the fever for the Arduino open hardware. From Buechley’s first kit with an Atmel AVR chip, further investigations led to the platforms developed by herself and SparkFun Electronics with Arduino components. It was October 2007 and a star was born in the electronic textiles sector.

Lilypad Arduino had a great reception within the community of artists and designers, eager to dream and create new products with this kit. The final impulse to this new trend was the research group High-Low Tech launched by MIT, with Buechley as a teacher, where numerous projects of electronic and smart textiles were promoted.

Projects of an enthusiastic community

Currently smart textiles are being used in sectors such as security, fashion, health or art. You can see in YouTube some examples of the real possibilities of adding an Arduino motherboard to textiles: medical robes that can capture and project the sound of your heart, dresses that can play a soundtrack or fabrics with lights that move synchronously…

Among the projects related to the research group at MIT and Buechley’s work as a teacher is this interactive paint by Pu Gong Ying. Thanks to the LEDs installed and interconnected with Lilypad Arduino, this artist has been able to create a painting of dandelion flowers with lights that are turned on and off, change their color and seem to disappear in the air. The work, which can be seen in the following video, is part of a series called 'Programmable Paintings'. In this Flickr gallery you can see the assembly process.

Interactive Light Painting: Pu Gong Ying Tu (Dandelion Painting) from Jie Qi on Vimeo.

In this other MIT project called ‘Animated Vines’ we can see how a cable attached to the fabric can make the vines move, as if they were alive, when a spectator arrives. Its creator, Jie Qi, was able to recreate a rhythmic movement.

Animated Vines from Jie Qi on Vimeo.

The own Leah Buechley, as part of her work at MIT, created in the spring of 2007 a bracelet with LED lights. Each of these devices has an accelerometer, which reacts to the movements of the wrist, and a Bluetooth module which enables wireless communications with computers and smartphones. In the second video you can see some of the Lilypad Arduino projects she has promoted as a teacher.

Technology allows us already to develop baby pajamas which prevent sudden death, socks that help us to avoid injuries, windbreakers that control our mobile devices… the idea behind Lilypad Arduino is to make some of these advances accessible to the general population: technology and collaborative economy at the service of people and a very ambitious future.

It may interest you