An Interview With Becky Stern About Wearable Electronics

Arduino Craft & Design Technology Wearables
An Interview With Becky Stern About Wearable Electronics
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The illustrious Becky Stern has joined us for an interview about wearable electronics. As you know, Becky lives and breathes wearables so she has some incredible insight.  If you’d like to find more of Becky, you should probably tune into her weekly show about wearable electronics!

If you don’t want to, or can’t open a video, you might appreciate the transcript of Becky’s interview.

Transcript Below

Hi Everybody I’m Becky Stern, the Director of Wearable Electronics at

Adafruit, and today I’m doing an interview for MAKE magazine wearables

week. The Community Editor Caleb Kraft sent me some great questions and

we also have an article in the latest issue so, if you’re curious,

continue watching and I’ll answer all of his questions.

First up, he says, how have wearables changed since you got started?

Maybe some quick background on what you studied in school.

I studied design and technology at Parsons school of Design right around

the same time as the Arduino came out so that was really fortunate for

me. I did maybe one semester of PIC chip programming and then it was

onto Arduino, which was a lot easier to get started with for an art

student like me. I made plush toys like you see here is a toy that was a

pair of dueling siblings and when one of them was wearing the crown, a

reed switch, a magnetic reed switch, would light up the LEDs in its

teeth. And, but we only had regular Arduino boards to work from so all

the wires were always hanging out and of course they’re just prototype

student projects but I did a lot with the Arduino right when it first

came out and I feel really lucky about that.

And then I was also playing around with some weird conductive materials

but there weren’t any instructions for any of this stuff about, you

know, the best way to use it or cool projects to do, you just kind of

had to make them up as you went along. So here’s LED bike helmet. And as

you can see here another Arduino board hanging out of a textile project.

My first article for MAKE was these plush illuminated steaks that I also

made in school. But using some demo it was just like this sample pulse

width modulation code that came with Arduino and if that wasn’t there I

was stuck, you know, up BASIC Stamp creek without a paddle. So that’s

really fortunate.

At the same time, Craft magazine came out and this is a project that was

in the first issue by Leah Buechley, which is an electronic tank top

with sewable LED sequins but you still had to use a giant AVR

development board to program the chip. So that was a really

inspirational project but hard to get started building yourself so she

developed the LilyPad Arduino, which is, you know, takes the open source

design of the Arduino and turns it into a sewable, flat format that’s

easy to use with conductive thread. And there were fun tutorials for

projects like this one, this LED turn signal hoodie. That was really

inspirational for me because I was still embedding electronics into

clothes like this. This is a TV-B-Gone circuit and you can see the wires

are joined with conductive thread, anyway you can’t — it’s not a very

natural connection. So, you can see the pretty stark contrast between

what Arduino board clones and derivatives and compatible devices were

looking like and then when the sewable one came out what kind of world

it opens up for all kinds of people who already had textiles on the


And I did a couple projects for MAKE with the LilyPad that were really

fun and got a lot of attention from textile enthusiasts. But basically

they become a lot easier to use, Arduinos and stuff like that.

EL wire I think has remained similarly easy to use. This is 2007 Daft

Punk costumes from their tour. And there was an instructable then and

there’s instructables now, EL wire I feel like has stayed the same

usability for the last several years. But then look at the

microcontroller market now for wearables. There’s all kinds of boards

available, even a .net sewable microcontroller so kind of mashing up

skills people previously had — if you’re already into sewing, maybe this

is your avenue into electronics. I just think now it’s a lot easier and

there are a lot more projects out there that hold your hand getting into

wearable electronics.

OK, next question. What upcoming tech are you most excited about?

Umm, that’s fun. I’m always excited about everything that’s coming out

but, most notably, the Fona. It’s the new Adafruit product that let’s

you put a cell phone inside into your electronics projects. I’m looking

forward to making a garment that, you know, like tweets when you fall in

a puddle or calls your friend when you get out of the subway on the way

to your favorite pub or sends a text message for any reason. So, I think

the fact that you can get your hands on a cool GSM module that’s so

small, is really neat and I’m excited to see what people do with the


The other tech I’m excited about that’s happening recently is Bluetooth

low energy. So that’s the new standard the new iPhones use, the new

iPads. It’s, Bluetooth has previously been pretty high power so the new

low energy chips are pretty exciting because they make it possible to

put this tiny chip that can communicate with your phone inside your

garments. This is the shine activity monitor that you uses Bluetooth low

energy to communicate your activity stats to your phone, and we also

have a Bluetooth low energy module that makes it so that you can use

your phone to send a message to your LED scrolling hat, things like

that. So the idea that you can use your phone, like if your garment

can’t be a phone, which it almost can be, so far, you can control it

with your phone so that, you know, your dress changes color depending on

the weather report that comes into your phone everyday. Stuff like that,

I think the possibilities are really opening up so, phone wearables and

Bluetooth low energy wearables are what I’m excited about.

The next question is who are, oh sorry, what is the biggest bottleneck

in wearables currently?

I don’t know that there is one I think that it’s really taking off like

crazy and that’s really exciting. Here’s our wearable electronics

pinterest board and there are many out there, wearable tech pinterest

boards you can spend all day on there looking at all the cool projects

that are going on. And here’s Studio XO makes stuff for Lady Gaga and

other stage performers — they’re really taking off right now and also

Cute Circuit is a company that’s also made costumes for celebrities but

also has their own line out this season of, you know, iPhone controlled,

animated garments. I’m seeing the space really take off, I don’t think

there is a bottleneck as far as what people can do. There a lot of

possibilities out there and you’re seeing a lot of start-ups take

advantage of the sensors that are available and the fact that people

want to put tech on the real estate of their bodies. There’s just

endless dog activity monitor start-ups, hair clips that call the police

when you’re mugged, all kinds of businesses starting up right now. It’s

really sort of fervent activity. No bottleneck — I don’t think so.

The next question is who are three people’s work you enjoy watching?

Well besides all the customers and other people on the internet who

share their wearables projects, just individual people who’ve made their

first project — those are really my favorite. When people are getting

that first bit of inspiration and opening up the possibilities of what

they can make in the future.

Here are three people who are doing really awesome work right now.

Moritz Waldemeyer makes costumes for all kinds of bands, OK Go! Jackets,

beautiful chandeliers, beautiful table sculptures, just amazing LED work

overall. And he’s not in the DIY space he’s doing corporate hotel

lobbies and big events. He did Olympic Opening Ceremony dance costumes —

really high level inspirational stuff. And then another guy I really

like is Adam Harvey. He’s doing all of this stealth ware, wearable tech

that helps you fight against other technology. So like thermal, like a

cape that hides your thermal image from surveillance drones and cell

phone pockets that block your cell phone signal, makeup that makes you

invisible to facial recognition software. I think that kind of stuff is

really important because it teaches you — or he’s making it fashionable

to be aware of how technology works and how it might work against you

and you can use technology to fight technology that you don’t agree with

in a really fun, fashionable way. He’s also a really nice guy. And then

the third person who’s work I’m really excited about watching now is

Katya Vega. She does what she calls beauty technology — conductive

makeup that controls all kinds of digital interfaces, RFID fingernail

polish to unlock doors, and she documents it all, LED headdresses.

She’s involved in various events and her work is really fun to follow

online. So I really like anybody’s work that is documented really well

so that I can see it and can see how it was made and people are clearly

having a lot of fun doing what they’re doing.

OK, the next question. As someone who does a million projects as part

of her job, what wearables have made themselves part of your daily life?

That’s a hard question because I don’t really wear, I don’t really wear

a watch even — I don’t like to wear stuff on my wrists. I wear a little

bit of jewelry every once in a while but it’s all fashion related so,

what goes with my outfit. But I would say if I had to pick some of the

projects that I’ve done in the past, the one I wear most often is

probably the TV-B-Gone jacket. And originally it was a hoodie and then I

liked the way it functioned so much that I kind of wanted all my jackets

to turn televisions off with a zipper. So I used a jacket that I really

liked wearing already so now I just like wearing that jacket and it just

happens to come with this extra feature if that’s the jacket I wear, so

that’s a big one — TV-B-Gone, being able to turn TVs off with my zipper.

It’s been really handy throughout the years. And then I guess the

project I wear most often, because we do a lot of costume stuff, we

don’t make fitness activity monitors that you’re supposed to wear to

sleep. This LED neopixel bangle bracelet I wear most often when I want

to pick something from my catalogue to dress up with. So those are my

two favorites.

There’s one more question. Do more women and girls get into electronics

that involve textiles and sewing?

Well, maybe. But I have some comments on the topic of gender. Here is a

couple of girls at the Google Made with Code launch event. They’re doing

this 50-million-dollar initiative to get girls into computer science

because studies are showing that, you know, the percentage of women in

engineering and coding jobs is going way down over the last several

years and that’s like not OK because it is really like, if you don’t

know how to program you will be programmed by the system. So I mean we

like to make projects that have, that are genderless and ones that are

very specifically inspiring to groups of people. Because if you see

something cool, and you can see yourself wearing it, you can see

yourself making it, then that might inspire your imagination to build

something else and to really see yourself as having a role in technology. While

a lot of projects are, pretty genderless like EL Wire hoodie, which does

involve some sewing, we also make projects that are specifically more

feminine oriented. It’s just, I mean, like ladies adorn themselves so

there’s like more fun opportunities like makeup — this is costume

makeup so obviously for all genders, too, but it does involve

soldering. So, I mean, we do think about the audience when we make a

project. This one lets you be a digital princess and it does involve

sewing or soldering but if a little girl sees a project that’s very

clearly a like beautiful tiara and she wants to play dress-up as a

princess and wants her tiara to light up, it might inspire her to learn

how to program and how to solder and sort of take what she knows and

stretch the imagination a little. Also, like, I can’t help but make

projects that I would want to wear and I happen to be a woman. And

similarly with this LED hair bow, it’s just like yeah you’ve see robot

embroidery but like it, I think that to be really inspired in a sort of

disadvantaged group, I don’t know that they’re disadvantaged, or

under-represented really speaks to that group. Because I do a project

every week, I can do a project for girls, for boys, for everybody,

depending on what week it is. And we do try to do projects that involve

sewing and and soldering and look good on a dude or a lady, like the

fire-walker sneakers. And then here’s a tie that is an all sewing, all

conductive thread project that, you know, is a necktie that’s typically

worn by a dude. We’re trying to do the opposite too, like make

engineering enthusiasts who maybe have never tried textile crafts before

try that so it works well for us if everybody wants to try the thing

they don’t already know how to do, right? And to that end we try to make

projects with as broad of a reach as possible.

So, thanks Caleb for asking me all those great questions and if you have

any more questions for me, you can ask them in the comments or on

twitter and I’ll answer them on my live show Wearable Electronics with

Becky Stern every Wednesday at 2pm on the Adafruit Youtube channel. So

thanks so much for the opportunity for being interviewed here on MAKE

Wearables week is very exciting and I hope that you make something fun

to wear.

WearableWeek_Badge_small_bur01This week, July 14-19 2014, we’re exploring wearable electronics of all kinds on Make! If it is electronic and belongs on your body, we’d love to hear about it! You can find all of our wearable articles by going here.


0 thoughts on “An Interview With Becky Stern About Wearable Electronics

  1. Adrew Miller says:

    Becky Stern gives you great ideas & suggestion regarding wearable Electronic so overall concept it fare.
    Thank you for sharing

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I get ridiculously excited seeing people make things. I just want to revel in the creativity I see in makers. My favorite thing in the world is sharing a maker's story. email me at hello (at)

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