Feb 01 2013

Making Fashion Playable at Eyebeam!

Connected Learning, Members

This is a guest post by the creators of Playable Fashion, a Hive Fashion project. Kaho Abe is a Computational Fashion Fellow at Eyebeam Art & Technology Center and Sarah Schoemann is the producer of the HEY GIRL (GAMER) speaker series and the creator and co-organizer of Different Games Conference 2013. The Playable Fashion afterschool workshop kicks off this month at Eyebeam. Teens in NYC between the ages of 14-18 can sign up to participate here.

Eyebeam’s Hive Fashion youth program kicked off to an amazing start the weekend of January 5th! Youth from all over the city, including an intrepid crew of teens from Ralph McKee HS on Staten Island, who arrived with their Game Design Club instructor Kristana Textor (who was kind enough to share many of the pictures below), as well one student from New Jersey traveled to Chelsea to take part in our twoday workshop on wearable game controllers.

Offered as a preview of the semester-long Playable Fashion after-school program that we’ll be leading this spring from February 12th to May 22nd, games and fashion designer and Eyebeam Computational Fashion Fellow Kaho Abe and myself were excited to see a great mix of teens, both in terms of abilities/interests and gender, with the breakdown among participants at approximately 50:50, male/female.

Working with the assumption that it was better to plan more and do less, Kaho and I had put together a jam-packed, two-day crash course (7 hours each day) on DIY electronics, gaming and fashion design. While Sunday was set aside for the participants to delve into the design side of their wearables, Saturday was devoted to preparing the hardware for our wearable controllers, which included creating the working soft circuitry and cracking open mice to harvest the circuit boards inside.

After kicking things off with a getting-to-know you session of “Two Truths and a Lie: Fashion Edition” (where we divulged our wackiest fashion faux pas) youth got right to work on creating their first “soft” buttons out of simple wearable materials like felt, polyfil stuffing and conductive fabric tape using worksheets and templates Kaho had written.
By allowing each student to work at their own pace using the worksheets, we were able to observe a lot of variation in the student’s skills and comfort with sewing and improvising with fabric. Some appeared to be completely new to working with a needle and thread while others began immediately to take on more challenging forms for their buttons (like the circle and cube pictured). The worksheets also freed us up to walk around the space, giving more personal attention to tables or to individuals who needed it.

Another cool trend that emerged was the way that horizontally sharing our instructions with the participants encouraged peer mentoring and collaboration, with the teens chatting and helping each other around their tables.

After building and testing their buttons, the teens spent the rest of the day cracking open and hacking their mini USB powered mice, prepping them to be integrated into wearables by deconstructing and re-soldering their circuit boards into plastic enclosures outfitted with conductive velcro. Connecting the mice with velcro circuitry made them not only easy to then attach to fabric but also allowed them to remain removable both for washing the garment, but also to give youth a reusable hardware element for interfacing between their soft, physically interactive electronics and their work on the screen. By making the mouse element detachable and portable, the youth could also conceivably continue to build new projects around the USB connection by simply adding conductive velcro to other garments. In other words, by providing the USB mouse as a reuseable bridge between software and hardware, we were hoping that the youth would have the chance to continue to explore Playable Fashion on their own, after the workshop ended.

Unfortunately, a drawback of having the youth hack an existing consumer technology was that the flimsy quality of the materials yielded little room for error. Unlike more robust teaching platforms like the Arduino or the the wearable Flora microcontroller (which we will be to using for our long-term afterschool program), which are tools designed to withstand some rough treatment, the mice didn’t hold up well to mistakes. For the many youth at the workshop who were learning to solder for the first time (including our three intern instructors) this proved to be a tough introduction, with the boards snapping, melting and failing on many of them. Impressively, everyone seemed to take it in stride and I was thankful for the reminder of how exciting and empowering a skill like soldering can be to those being introduced to it for the first time. Although we weren’t able to complete the hacking unit in our first day we returned to it the next morning and got everyone up to speed by Sunday afternoon.

Despite the delays for some, everyone who attended on Sunday seemed happy with the results and the teens were able to come up with surprisingly resourceful and interesting project ideas with or without screen-based components. Continuing to work mostly independently while Kaho and I circulated to give one-on-one advice and suggestions, the teens built out projects like light up gloves and hand sewn LED-emblazoned pillows, in addition to finishing their controllers and beginning to integrate them into wearables.

Given the freedom to pick their materials and direct their own projects, the teens came up with incredibly diverse and often quite ambitious projects. It was great to see them integrate their existing knowledge and strengths into the process and leverage those skills to get the most out of the new tools they were mastering. Without staying relatively hands off and allowing the youth the space to make these kinds of choices, I don’t think we would have seen nearly as much creativity or variety in what they made on day two.

One of the most fully developed (and hilarious) creations was a collaboration between three teens who pooled their resources to create a “poking game.” Lead by a student that was already experienced at game programming and another who was able to jump on our spare sewing machine, the three of them attached their soft buttons to their t-shirts and coded a score-keeping program in the open-source development environment, Processing. Inspired in part by Kaho’s game Hit Me where players try to press each other’s game buttons on helmets in order to trigger snapshots of each other from embedded web-cams, the poking game in which two contestants tried to poke and prod each other competitively was a silly and fantastic finale to a great weekend-long exploration of wearable games and tech-enriched fashion.

Kaho and I can’t wait to get started on our upcoming Playable Fashion after-school program, which begins February 12th. and I think we are both especially excited to incorporate what we learned from our two-day workshop as we build out the semester long course. It was a great testament to the wealth of creativity that teens are capable of showcasing when given the resources, support and trust to work independently and collaborate with each other. Not only were the Hive youth in Playable Fashion able to further their existing interests in fashion, gaming and tech but they were able to delve deeper into the role of being indie “producers” in these three areas of popular culture where youth are often only seen as “consumers.” Their excitement in exploring this kind of active and creative engagement with design and technology was fun to see and be a part of.

Looking forward to working with another group of talented, creative teens in our afterschool program, beginning February 12th. So stay tuned for Playable Fashion, the extended remix, coming this spring!

– Sarah Schoemann & Kaho Abe

Interested in exploring some of the tech we used in our weekend workshop?
Here are some resources to check out:

  • Kaho was kind enough to share the worksheets she created for the weekend workshop.
  • Some of the tech-craft techniques used were inspired by Hannah Perner-Wilson’s wonderfully detailed soft circuitry Instructables.
  • Also, if you’re interested in hacking a USB 3 button mouse, like we did in the pictures above, here is a Processing Sketch we used to test our re-furbished mice when they were attached to our soft buttons. It will help you make sure that all 3 mouse buttons work when plugged into your computer. Happy Hacking!

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