Wearable technology includes one off projects by designers, makers, and hackers and there are more and more people producing tutorials on how to get started. It’s also a great way to get both kids and adults excited about coding, electronics, and in general, engineering skills.

Sophy Wong is a designer who makes really cool stuff using code, technology, costuming, soldering, and even jewelry techniques to get tech onto the human body. Sophy joins the show to answer to answer my many questions about getting started safely with wearable tech.

Transcript for episode 136 of the Test & Code Podcast

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00:00:00 Wearable technology is not just smart consumer devices like watches and activity trackers. Wearable Tech also includes one off projects by designers, makers, and hackers, and there are more and more people producing tutorials on how to get started. I think wearable tech is is also a great way to get both kids and adults excited about coding, electronics, and in general engineering skills. Sophie Wong is a designer who makes really cool stuff using code technology, costuming, soldering, and even jewelry techniques to get tech onto the human body. Sophie joins the show to answer my many questions about getting started safely in wearable tech.

00:00:51 Welcome to Test and Code today in Test and Code. Am thrilled to have Sophie Wong. And this is a little bit of a different episode.

00:01:09 Actually. I normally talk about testing stuff and Python stuff, and actually I don’t even know if you use any Python in your work, but I have a hard time trying to introduce you because you do so much. So when you meet people, how do you introduce yourself?

00:01:23 I usually say that I’m a designer who makes stuff that’s really my background is in design, and I use design as my main tool for figuring out how I’m going to build all the crazy ideas that come into my head. So I really introduced myself as a designer first, and I use things like code and a lot of technology in my processes and in my finished projects. And I really just try to use the tools and the skills that the project requires. That’s pretty much how I explain what I do.

00:02:03 You do all sorts of stuff, from soldering stuff to coding to sewing to all sorts of things.

00:02:10 I think my main focus, though, is I have a really deep interest in technology and wearable technology.

00:02:18 So a lot of my projects are sort of based in figuring out how to get technology onto the human body, whether it’s putting technology into a costume. I love costuming or whether it’s figuring out how to make a tiny piece of jewelry light up. I didn’t set out to learn how to do wearable technology and wearable electronics projects, but that’s sort of where I’ve ended up. My interest has really grown.

00:02:45 That’s cool. I love this idea about wearable technology, but a bunch of questions jump to mind right away with this. So, like, if I got a jacket with light up lights in it and stuff, there’s electronics in there, can I ever wash the coat again?

00:03:00 That’s an excellent question. And it’s something that I think a lot of us sort of gloss over when we have a great idea of some kind of technology we want to put into a piece of clothing. We’re sometimes more focused on the fun aspects of how I’m going to solder it together and how great it’s going to look when it’s done. And the reality is, yes, you’re going to need to wash that garment. Anything that is touching your skin is going to need to be cleaned. And it’s a hygiene thing, but it’s also a maintenance thing that is something you want to do to prolong the life of your project. So I have several recommendations for people who are putting technology into clothing. What’s really great is there’s a lot of manufacturers who are specifically making electronic components for wearable functions. So they’re trying to create microcontrollers and components that are, in a sense, washable that can get wet and they will survive when they dry out. That’s not always enough to make your entire project launderable because there’s wear and tear that’s just going to happen. If you throw it in the washing machine or even if you dry clean something, there’s a lot of wear and tear that goes on. So my biggest recommendation to people who want to do this is make your project, design it so that your electronic components can be easily removed. So where you can don’t glue something in and sew it in instead, you can always clip out the stitches and resell it in later. Launder the part of the garment that is cloth that you can wash and then add the electronics back in later. That’s something that we would do in theater. I’ve worked in theater for costuming. Every piece of costuming that touches an actor’s skin needs to be washed between each performance. So we build our costumes so that they can be disassembled if necessary and laundered. Another thing that is a really good thing to do is build your electronics into a part of the outfit that is going to be separated by another layer of clothing from your skin. So put it in a jacket, which is an outer layer. It doesn’t need to be laundered as often and wear what we call a laundry layer underneath. You could always wear an extra shirt underneath or something underneath just to protect that garment and reduce the amount of times you have to clean it.

00:05:37 Oh, that’s a great idea. Like my leather jacket. I don’t know if I’ve ever washed that or how to.

00:05:44 Yeah, that’s a great example. I actually have a project where I put electronics into a leather jacket, a vinyl jacket. I chose that piece of clothing because I knew that it’d be easier to spot clean that and I wouldn’t have to throw the whole thing in my washing machine.

00:06:01 Okay. Next up, one of the reasons why I got interested in this is the idea of wearable technology is the vast array of what you can do with it and all the different projects, different cool things. But also, I think getting younger people or people that aren’t excited about coding or soldering or something like that, more excited about technology.

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00:07:34 Before I encourage my kids to get involved, I want to make sure they’re safe. Is there any danger in wearing electronics, whether it’s from the electricity or from the chemicals or anything?

00:07:46 Yeah, absolutely. I think with every maker project and especially with electronics projects, we always have to be mindful of the inherent dangers of working with these materials. I would say it’s the same level of caution that you should take with any electronics project. You should apply the common sense that you would apply to your regular electronics projects. To wearable tech projects, you’re asking exactly the right questions.

00:08:12 Yes, you do need to insulate the circuit and make sure it does not touch your skin. You need to keep it away from moisture, and that becomes a tricky thing to do when you’re wearing it on your body. Your body is always going to you’re going to sweat, you’re going to create a moist environment. So you really want to make sure that the circuitry is nowhere near your skin and chemicals? Yes, I use a lot of different kinds of glues adhesives obviously solder. I’m always washing my hands. I’m always wearing my safety glasses when I’m soldering. It’s something that I think a lot of people skip, and I don’t skip that because I care about my eyes. I definitely want to take all those safety precautions. But know that you can safely do these projects when you’re observing all of those safety precautions. All the common sense things that you would do for a regular electronics project, they absolutely apply for wearable tech.

00:09:10 I’m glad I asked because I would have never thought to try to create a barrier between the components and skin and especially the moisture part. So maybe I could stick some circuit in some fabric, but that needs to be able to stay dry also. So maybe a plastic housing or something like that.

00:09:30 Yeah, it becomes a tricky proposition, and I think I like to highlight that aspect early on in simple electronics projects. Wearable electronics projects because I think our minds get really we get excited with the prospect of wearable electronics, and we might think of like a really elaborate thing that we want to build, like making your own HoloLens wearable computer that sits on your face. That’s super cool. But you’re going to have to address these issues of how am I going to protect the circuit from moisture? How am I going to power this safely? Where am I going to put that battery so it’s not going to get compressed or used or twisted or exposed to moisture while I’m wearing it. And all of those same constraints you’re going to have to address in a smaller project, like just putting an Led into your jacket or onto a shoe or something smaller than building an entire computer on your face.

00:10:30 It’s the same issue because it has to go on your body.

00:10:34 I can think of things like wearable computers like the Hollow Lands or in the magazine that we’ll talk about later. There’s a really cool cuff links, which I’m totally intrigued by. That’s something that’s completely like it’s wearable, but it’s not fabric. The fabric aspect is intriguing to me.

00:10:57 I didn’t get into it enough to find out.

00:11:00 Are there, like, actual wires and cables and circuits going on in the fabric on some of these projects?

00:11:06 Yes. There are multiple ways to integrate electronics into fabric and textiles. And there’s actually an amazing duo of makers based in Germany called Kobacant that’s with a K. And they do a ton of experimentation and a lot of projects with soft circuits. So they’ll use conductive thread to build their circuit. So maybe not wire, maybe just all conductive thread, but they’ll also weave wires into textiles. And if you get a big enough needle and a small enough wire, you can sew with it.

00:11:47 Yeah, it’s truly amazing. And it’s a whole other set of challenges. When you reduce your wire or your thread down to size that’s small enough to sew to sew with, you’re going to start running into resistance issues.

00:12:05 I often say a lot of us who teach wearable electronics, we start we like to start people off with sewn circuits and sewing with conductive thread because it’s a really easy way to get into it. It’s a really low barrier to entry, and you can make some really cool stuff with it. Yeah. Conductive thread is not that expensive. You don’t have to buy soldering equipment. It’s a bit less intimidating if you’ve never soldered before. To your earlier point, it doesn’t require any process that creates a noxious fume. You can just sew with conductive thread, but pretty quickly, once you get used to using conductive thread, your ideas will outgrow the capabilities of conductive thread, and then you’ll have to learn how to solder.

00:12:53 But I’ve seen Kobacant and other people who really, really embrace the conductive thread. They build incredible projects with conductive thread, and it’s just mind blowing. So I wouldn’t say that it’s impossible to make a complex project with something like conductive thread in textiles, because I have seen it done. It’s just the Masters of the art form are just pushing that boundary, and it’s amazing.

00:13:20 That’s pretty cool.

00:13:23 Let’s imagine we’re in a Covet era, and I’ve got to teach my kids at home, and doing a project like this or some sort of wearable project might be a good thing while everybody’s at home. Do you have a recommendation for a good starter project?

00:13:38 Yeah, actually, there are a couple in a book that I wrote for Hackspace magazine.

00:13:44 There’s one in there that doesn’t require any coding or soldering at all, which is a really nice, quick project. It’s sewing some LEDs into a pair of shoes, so it’s wearable. It’s definitely wearable tech. And you do have to face the same challenges we mentioned before. How are you going to put that battery in there? How are you going to keep the circuit from touching your skin? You can wear socks in this case, and it’s a soable project, so it’s pretty easy to jump in and just dive right into building that circuit on the shoe. It’s a really satisfying one for a weekend.

00:14:20 Cool.

00:14:21 And you might already have most of the stuff to do it. You might only need to get the conductive thread.

00:14:27 Is this the Hackspace wearable tech projects?

00:14:30 Yeah. Okay.

00:14:31 I was blown away by some of the projects in this. There’s just like a pair of snow goggles with an Led strip on top. Looks so cool. Love that.

00:14:41 Yeah, that’s another great one. That one does require some soldering and a little bit of I would say that project is a very simple circuit, basically a strip of individually addressable RGB LEDs, something like Neo pixels from Adafruit and connected to a microcontroller and a battery. It’s pretty simple.

00:15:03 I think the complexity and the challenge comes with how are you going to make that circuit work on a pair of snow goggles that have basically an elastic band to hold the goggles to your face? So this is another inherent challenge with working with wearable technology, which is a lot of clothing has stretch in it or some kind of fit adjustment built into the clothing because everyone’s a different size. Your body moves in a lot of different ways just through the course of the day. So there’s a lot of stretch involved in clothing and apparel and accessories. But electronic circuits don’t like to stretch. They don’t like to bend.

00:15:50 So the challenge is how to merge these two things in that project. I like to keep the electronics in a portion of the goggles that can stay fairly rigid throughout the wearing process. So I’ll try to keep the electronics close to the front, close to the rigid part of the goggles, and then allow the rest of the elastic band to stretch around your head. Because if you make that circuit go completely around your head, you will run into problems. And that’s something, again, that you want to learn on a smaller project like this. Before you get to bigger, complex wearable projects.

00:16:29 Now this is a pretty big magazine. There’s a lot of projects in here. Did you write all of these or are you just the editor?

00:16:37 No, I wrote those. So I basically was doing tutorials for Hackspace magazine. I was doing wearable technology tutorials for them for a couple of years. And this is a compilation of the tutorials that I did for their magazines. There are a few other artists in there that are showcased and some other great projects wearable projects from other people who also work in this field. But the majority of the projects in there are my tutorials. I really just focused on this for a couple of years and churned out a lot of tutorials. I wanted to take people from zero to pretty complex and then just empower people to come up with their own ideas for using these things.

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00:18:43 I think back on that too, and I wonder, I’m like, how did I end up doing this? Because when I was a kid, I didn’t know that any of this was possible, and I didn’t know that I would be so interested in this combination of these things. But I always loved wearable things. I always loved costumes, and I always loved technology. I just didn’t know really how or if those two passions of mine were going to come together.

00:19:12 And so I studied design in College. I majored in graphic design, so I wasn’t really studying specifically anything wearable or technology when I was in College, and I worked as a graphic designer for a while. But I was very fortunate in my design education that my professors really stressed a holistic approach and a holistic application of design principles. So they really taught us that design could be used for anything architecture, civil engineering, marketing. You can apply design principles to all of those things to create a certain outcome. And so when I started to tinker more with my hands. And I was getting more excited by apparel and costumes than I was with my graphic design job. So I started kind of working just more in that field on my own time.

00:20:11 And then there was this AHA moment where I saw someone on TV, someone on Project Runway. It was like the second season of Project Runway. They had a designer on their name, Diana Ing, and she was using electronics in her garments. So I saw her doing it on TV, and that was the first time I’d ever seen that combination of technology and fashion design. And I was like, Whoa, where is she getting that stuff? How does she know how to do that? And I found out that she wrote a book, so I bought her book, and I just pursued it. And that was just like this Genesis moment for what I’m doing now. And that was years and years ago. It was just that encounter that made all of this happen.

00:21:03 That’s pretty neat. I was listening to an interview with you, and you mentioned your design classes in College, but you also said that you took as many different art classes as you could, including a lot of the physical arts, like ceramics and things like that.

00:21:22 I started College as an art student, switched to computer science, but I was taking it to try to narrow down what I wanted to do with my life. I kind of wish I would have done that, like the expansive try lots of different things, because you probably I mean, I’m guessing that you learned to think in lots of different ways by working with different mediums way back when.

00:21:46 Yeah. It’s so funny that you mentioned that, because for a long time, I thought I was doing it wrong. I thought I was supposed to figure out what that specific thing was I was going to do with my life, but it just wasn’t working for me.

00:22:05 I’m just drawn to trying lots of different things, and I thought that I was messing it up by doing that. And it’s only recently that I realized that it’s been a real benefit for me to be really open to trying a lot of different things and adding them to my toolbox.

00:22:22 Yeah, well, a couple of one of the things I definitely want I wanted to make sure I asked you about is you mentioned that you do costume design also, but on your costumes page, there is this gorgeous dress. You must know which one I’m talking about.

00:22:38 Is it the pink? Really elaborate?

00:22:40 Yes.

00:22:40 18Th century. Yeah.

00:22:43 So that’s an older project of mine, but I still love it, and there’s no electronics or technology at all. That was just a project that I really wanted to challenge my sewing skills, and I really wanted to grow my patterning skills. So I intentionally chose something very elaborate, a garment to sew that was very elaborate that I couldn’t buy an off the shelf pattern for because I wanted to figure out how to pattern things. So I did a lot of research, and I made an 18th century. It’s called a Robe Olive Francis. And it’s basically, if you imagine, like Maria Antoinette, it’s that kind of very elaborate French historical gown from that period.

00:23:29 This is your first patterning project?

00:23:30 It was my first elaborate patterning project, and I didn’t tell you it was easy. It was hard. It took me a long time, but I learned so much doing it.

00:23:42 Currently, I’m doing a 3D printed dress that I patterned from scratch that I’m 3D printing all the panels on fabric. And I’m challenging myself to make an entire garment that way. And I’m absolutely using the skills that I learned all those years ago when I made that French dress that you’re talking about.

00:24:01 Is it silk?

00:24:02 It is acrylic satin. It’s very cheap. This was an experiment. I think of it as an experiment because I knew I was going to learn a lot doing it, even though it was a sort of cheaper material. It was a lot of it.

00:24:14 It looks like metallic trims. Is that an illusion also?

00:24:18 In that case, it is, yeah. And I do a lot of painting on fabric. I do a lot of sort of transforming materials in my work. I use a lot of materials that aren’t what they look like in the end result. So I often take something like plastic and painted to look like metal or something like that.

00:24:34 Okay. Well, this is a good job.

00:24:36 Thank you.

00:24:37 My wife and I collect antique metallic trims. It’s a weird thing to collect.

00:24:42 I love that.

00:24:43 And then the Ghostbuster costume also. Awesome. Got to say.

00:24:49 Cool.

00:24:49 Oh, thanks. That’s another one that has a lot of secret things in there that they look like metal, but that pack is only light. I think it’s like ten or £11. And usually the Ghostbuster packs are like £30 or more. They’re really heavy and they’re all plastic.

00:25:08 It’s all plastic. Okay.

00:25:09 It’s mostly plastic. There’s a few metal bits on it, but I kept it as light as possible.

00:25:14 It looks like even some of it that’s a fabric that painted to look like metal or something.

00:25:19 Yeah. It might be paper. There’s some paper on there, too. Yeah. There are a lot of tricks on that.

00:25:25 Do you have a favorite project that you’ve done recently or currently doing?

00:25:30 Yeah. So recently was it last year I made a space suit for myself, and it’s sort of a fantasy spacesuit. It’s an original design. I just really wanted to have, like, a cool cinematic spacesuit that when you go to a Sci-Fi movie and there’s like Prometheus or something, and they got those cool lights inside the helmet. It’s really dramatic. I really wanted that. So I designed my own and I made it for myself, and I’m really happy with it. The really cool part of that is someone contacted me, a director that makes music videos, and they wanted to use my spacesuit in their music videos.

00:26:07 Really just came out. Yeah. And it’s a Sci-Fi story. It’s actually really cool. It just came out last week and the suit looks great and they filmed it in the Badlands, really Sci-Fi location. It looks super cool. So that’s probably my favorite.

00:26:26 Is that a YouTube or something that we can link to?

00:26:31 Yeah, it’s on YouTube and it’s on Vivo. It’s like a legit music video. It’s crazy awesome.

00:26:38 Well, I mean, it’s an incredible space. How much coding can I get into this if I don’t know how to code yet or don’t know how to solder?

00:26:46 Yeah, absolutely. I did not know very much about coding or soldering when I started building things, and I just picked up the skills as I needed them to accomplish my ideas. And a lot of the projects in my wearable tech projects book are really designed for people who are new to coding. So a lot of those projects, they’re either coded with make code, which is visual based coding you can do online or with circuit Python. And I keep it very simple with circuit Python, and I let the complexity come out of the rest of the project. So the coding I think the projects that use the Circuit Playground Express are really great if you want to practice coding, because you can get straight to the coding aspect without having to build the whole circuit first. I find it’s easier to jump into something really challenging when I’m fresh and not when I’m worn out from the rest of the project already. So I’d recommend that if you’re new to coding, to start with the Circuit Playground Express projects.

00:27:47 Okay. That’s a really fun chip to work with, too. We gave them out of Python last year, I think.

00:27:57 Okay, so this is soldering bike circuits. Is this accessible to people with limited budgets?

00:28:03 Well, I’d say when I was a kid, I definitely would not have been able to tinker with these projects the way that I do as an adult. Manufacturers of the components that I use. They’re generally trying to make these things more accessible, and they’re coming down in price. But it’s not just a question of purchasing the components. You also need a computer, you need the Internet, you need space, you need a safe place to work on these things. So they’re absolutely barriers to getting into these projects. And I think we all have to, first of all, acknowledge that and what we do. I sometimes think like, oh, I’m putting this on the Internet. I’m making it really accessible to everyone, but in reality, it’s not as simple as that. So I think we all need to just those of us who are encouraging people to get into this as a hobby. I’m glad that you brought that up, because I think we really need to address that and I think there’s more that we can do to make it more accessible.

00:29:05 Okay. There are maker spaces around. I think you’re right. We have to pay attention to that. There are barriers because I can’t just say there’s a maker space 7 miles away. You can just drive your kid over there. That’s not really a solution for a lot of people.

00:29:19 Right. And I think for me, when I’m designing these projects, I try to keep in mind that this is an investment for a lot of people. And so I think it kind of dovetails nicely with what I was saying earlier about making your electronics removable.

00:29:34 If you can reuse that component from one project to another, that’s excellent. And I think the circuit player on express actually does a really nice job of that. Having everything built into work, designing projects that keep that board accessible and not buried into the project and not so deep in that you are destroying your project by removing that. That’s one way that we as the people who are creating these tutorials can support people for whom this is a huge investment.

00:30:09 They can reuse it.

00:30:11 Assume somebody’s got one circuit playground express and they can move it around to their hat and their jacket and whatever. That’s a cool idea. I like it.

00:30:22 Yeah.

00:30:22 Well, thank you so much for coming on the show.

00:30:26 We talked about Sophie wang.com. Is there any other place you’d like to direct people to to find out more?

00:30:32 Yeah, I’m actually I post pretty often on Twitter and on Instagram About what I’m currently working on. Sometimes my website lags a little bit behind Because I have to put the effort in to update it. My current work you can usually find on Twitter. I’m at Sophie Wong and on Instagram. I’m at Sophie Wong makes.

00:30:52 Sophie Wong makes. Okay. Awesome. Well, thanks so much.

00:30:56 Great. Thanks so much for having me.

00:31:00 Thank you, Sophie, for that great info and great inspiration. Thank you Monday.com for sponsoring join their contest at monday.com testandcode. Thank you, PyCharm for sponsoring the show. Try PyCharm yourself at testandcode.com PyCharm and thank you to all the listeners that support through Patreon join them by going to testandcode.com support. All of those links as well as links to the items we discussed during the show are in the show notes at testing Code.com 136. That’s all for now. Now go out and test something or maybe get started on some wearable tech.