Maker Movement Mania

Becky Stern: Wearable Electronics are Self-Expression

Jason Johnson Freelance writer and editor

Why the Adafruit designer wants to empower everyone to embrace the maker movement so they can join the personalized wearable tech revolution.

A nagging concern with wearable electronics is that one day everyone will be wearing nearly identical watches and pairs of glasses. That’s fine for something like a phone, which rests in your purse or on your desk, but the thing about wearables is that most are made to be seen.

When you put technology on your body, it is an undeniable fashion statement. Luckily, a small army of makers, crafters and tinkerers are re-imagining wearables as a medium for self-expression.

The team of DIY hackers at Adafruit Industries, for instance, has given birth to a wide array of hip, chip-enabled garments and gadgets. While other wearables come ready-to-wear with few options, Adafruit’s projects are tailor-made and offer a burst of individuality.

Mass-produced wearables are for “consumers of the technology,” said Becky Stern, the Director of Wearable Electronics at the west Manhattan-based company. “But our community is full of makers, who use our tutorials and parts to create their own wearables.”

Adafruit’s mission is to teach others to make really cool stuff.

Becky Stern uses wearble technology to enhance fashion.

Stern helms a vlog on YouTube where, on any given week, you can find her stitching a chip into fabric or wiring a zipper to craft an on-off switch for a textile potentiometer hoodie.

Frequently, the subject focuses on Adafruit’s versatile line of wearable microcontrollers. These tiny chips can do everything from fancy acrobatics, like communicating with GPS sensors, to simply revamping a New York Yankees cap with a rainbow of colors.

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 16.47.09

The influence for Stern’s creations are eclectic.

“Ideas come from all over,” she said, not just inside the lab. “New York City provides a significant chunk” of inspiration.

The motivation for her flat-brimmed hat with a 3D-printed logo, for instance, came from the subway.

“But ideas for new wearables can come from concepts like protection, expression, mischief, curiosity, observation and activism,” Stern said.

To that list you can also add doggie Halloween costumes.

Though these accessories are coveted by humans and canines alike, there is one big caveat.

“[They] are meant to inspire others to learn a new skill, such as programming or sewing with conductive thread,” Stern said. “If you want one, you’ve got to build it yourself.”

In fact, viewers often take her ideas and run with them. You might find a teenager creating a de rigueur prom dress that is activated by dance or a cyclist who invents a solar-charged messenger bag.

“It’s our goal to help enthusiastic novices take agency over the high tech that’s already all around us,” she said.

Solar bag, wearable technology

A quick perusal of Adafruit’s gif-laden website shows just how dynamic the field of creative wearables can be. There’s neckwear, hair bands, even a glowing pair of Chuck Taylors. This shows how much wearable technology can impact clothing and fashion. They’re doing more than reporting body metric readings and sending email notifications.

“Bodies are an extremely personal place to put electronics, and everyone has different motivations when doing so,” Stern said.

Because wearables can be reconfigured in endless ways, they give people a multitude of ways to express themselves. Each item can be highly personalized, which is all the more reason to embrace the DIY and maker movements.

“When you wear a circuit that you built yourself, it’s easy to feel a confidence boost not only over the fashion statement you’re making, but also because you’re empowered by having created it.”

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