Make in China.

Not to be confused with "Made in China". 

China surprised me. I had this preconception of a deprived culture based on textbook teachings and the occasional human rights stories filtering out on social media. All of the nope. Nothing was like I anticipated. From the luxurious greenery of the city (Shenzhen) to the shopping centers, architecture and even the people. The hospitality of the folks we spent the most time with at Seeed Studios was sublime. 

I was in China for close to a month starting on June 2, all to create Interactive Fashion at Seeed Studios for Shenzhen Maker Faire, now the second largest Maker Faire in the world after Bay area. I was there under the name of MakeFashion and as an artist in residence at Seeed Studios. The final pants that I designed were shown at the Shenzhen MakerFaire

My dress from the MakeFashion show in Calgary on the runway in Shenzhen. Photo credit (MAKE)

My dress from the MakeFashion show in Calgary on the runway in Shenzhen. Photo credit (MAKE)

I traveled to Shenzhen by myself, a flight to HongKong Airport, then by ferry to the Shenzhen Shekou port, and then by fake taxi to my apartment in the Nanshan district of Shenzhen. n all fairness they warned me about the taxis that meet you at the door and usher you into their car, but at that time of the night my scam detection software was tired and turned off. So i paid 200 yuan instead of 20 to get to my apartment. 

At the end of the trip the whole MakeFashion team had arrived. Shannon, Maria, Paul, Catherine, Kelly, Kyle, Sophie, Stacey, Kenzie, Nadine, Zoe, and McCauley. We went fabric and suit shopping a little too often. The prices are just screaming at you to buy them. We all had custom tailored clothing made. I got two suites for myself. Two complete looks for a total of $400 canadian. And I now have a Tailor in China, I line I can casually drop when someone asks where my suite is from "oh, my tailor in China made it for me" no biggie. 

MyoLight - Using light to display muscle activity. 

My goal in Shenzhen was to utilize the electronics markets, fabric markets and expertise at Seeed Studios to create a pair of pants that monitor muscle activity via EMG sensors and display it using Fading lights. The practical application for this could be for aiding rehabilitation of muscles, for dancers to build muscle awareness, and maybe even for babies to more quickly build the mental bridge between use of muscle and the action of walking. I don't know, but maybe!

My first step was to head off to the Electronics District. Huaqiangbei.
Holy shit. 
I went there with two of my chinese friends for ease of translation, and every time we entered a new floor or building my brain wanted to reject the enormity of it all. Look at the below image, this is 1/7 floors of 1/30+ buildings just filled with electronics. There is a whole 10 story building dedicated to led's and all the components needed to make them work. It overwhelms every sense of scale I had imagined when envisioning an electronics market. 

These vendors all represent one factory, and are not too interested in selling small quantities, they deal in !000+ quantities. Even when buying a soldering iron, they asked "how many would you like?". One is enough, thank you. 

To compare this to electronics markets in Calgary for example. I cannot find any place to buy tiny surface mount resistors, at the Huaqiangbei Market there are entire vendors selling only one type of resistor. Hyperspecialization is totally normal and I love it. 

Anyhow, I spent multiple days shopping around, communications were difficult so we used a calculator. Quantity, Price, V, mAh, W, K, mAh/H,  the basic electronic specifications were all one needs to know, along with their numerical indicator. Haggling is totally a thing too, and I greatly enjoyed doing that. 

I started developing my vision for my MyoLight creation as I discovered new components, and techniques, things you can best learn by witnessing the variety of electronics at Huaqiangbei. Below are a few images of my initial layouts and work in incorporating EMG sensors, along with an arduino board and PWM drivers into a pair of pants. 

Technical Talk. 
Let me describe how my pants work. 

So my concept was to amplify the output signal from the muscles (measured in millivolts) and use the signal to fade lights on a pair of pants in and out based on electrical muscle activity. 

To read the muscle signal I used the Grove EMG sensor made by Seeed Studios. Well, I used 14 of them to be precise. Mapping major muscle groups in the legs. These boards were feeding their signal into a Arduino Micro which then processed the signal and output a PWM signal to a small Mosfet with a pull up resistor which drove a string of LED's that were sewn onto the surface of the pants. 
The signal was fed in via the Analog inputs and the signal output was via the PWM pinouts. 
There were two sources of power, one for the Arduino board and EMG boards(9.6V 6AA's in series), and a different one for the LED's via the Mosfets (3.4V, 4X2AA's). I used AA's vs LiPo's simply because of reliability, ease of replacement, and because they are available everywhere.


The processing code was written by the uber skilled programmer at Seeed Studios: Pillar. 

For the construction, I glued the whole circuit onto a flexible Plastic board that slipped into the pockets and then had everything connected. with smalls connectors. There were very few soldering joints that were off the board which greatly increases reliability. 

I keep noticing this everywhere, the electronics industry is not set up for wearable tech. The circuits are not set up to be worn, everything is rigid, and square. The connections are all solder, which is really breakable and unreliable. The wires are a stiff plastic rather than silicon wire. The connectors are sharp edged square blocks of plastic. It's an endless stream of challenging materials to manipulate to best work in the wearable tech environment. And that is arguably the greatest challenge when designing interactive fashion, using hardware designed for boxes and stable surfaces, and place them on the body, which has the most unpredictable qualities: sweat, stretching, bending, pinching and softness. 

The Food. 

I love noodles. I love Chinese food. But every day? can I have pizza please!!
I learned the true value of Multiculturalism in Canada: the food they bring into the country. I can go to a vietnamese restaurant one day, then a japanese the next, then an italian the next and a canadian one the next. It's true variety and I have always taken it for granted, but once I experienced the lack of it as is in Shenzhen, I value what we have a lot more. 

The Internet. 

Oh god. It was like revisiting the HBNI firewall that blocked out all useful websites on the Colony. Let me list the websites that are blocked in China that I use the most. Google maps, Gmail, Google Drive, Google Translate, Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, Dropbox, Instagram, Facebook Messenger, Play Store. To access any of these I used a slowass VPN which more often than not didn't work. They have substitute services for all of the ones listed, but it makes communicating with the rest of the world so bloody difficult. I don't understand the Chinese Government's decision to limit communications like that, it hinders relations with the rest of the world so much. However, if you love WeChat, then this is the place for you. If you plan on visiting China, get a good VPN before you arrive, and install a bunch of apps that you know are not blocked, like Pleco, WeChat, Waygo, Shadowsocks and many more. 

All of the good things. 

There are just soooooooo many high-rises in Shenzhen. Everyone lives in apartment blocks which Is really nice, the denser population fills the streets and forces food shops and everything to be everywhere. Unlike Calgary's pancake building principals. It promoted people to interact and I love that. 

The architecture in the major centers is quite astounding. Their atriums are 10 stories tall solid marble. LED lights everywhere lighting up their oddly short days. The buildings are either tiny packed shops or grandiose marble slabs of polished space. I enjoyed that juxtaposition. I'm imagining their thinking to be: Lets have the buildings be functional if need be, but every once in a while let's be overwhelmingly ostentatious. 

The electronics Market. I'm so envious of that, it's hard not be be innovative with that in your city. It's overwhelming how much choice there is. How cheap that choice is, and how far they've taken innovation in technology in that city. 

The fabric and knockoff markets are equally as overwhelming. Everything is just so inexpensive. However the constant hawking of vendors as I walked by just irritated me so I loudly rejected their offer with a harsh "NO!". The ones that noticed your interest in their product and then followed you around asking you what you wanted were especially obnoxious. It was like mosquitoes on a muggy day in Manitoba, I love attention but not from you. 

The greenery is mind blowing. You could travel down a major thoroughfare through downtown and see only trees, shrubs and flowers. The roads are inescapably encased in the lushest of greenery, with immaculately trimmed shrubs and fully blooming flowers. Even the overpasses had an endless stream of flower pots on the side to give the illusion of there being a garden in the air. Lovely, so very lovely.   

This is an entirely normal amount of roadside greenery. Some roads even more, being totally engulfed in trees. 

I do very much expect to go back to China to further explore and develop wearable tech. Till then, stay tuned for my MakeFashion adventures in Calgary. 

(Photos were not all shot by myself)

The first dress I ever made 'Biomimetic Bride'

Well this appeared in my life rather suddenly.

While attending an EL-wire workshop at Endeavour Arts, Catherine asked me if I'd like to team up and create a dress for Make Fashion, and without much comprehension of what that meant, I agreed. 

We spent the next two months researching, prototyping, sewing, building, and programming my design into existence.

Dianne Gibson [Corsetière] created the corset to fit our model Katherine E Mandolidis perfectly. Catherine Hazin [editor of Luxe, by Calgary Bride] created the dress and spent countless hours sewing on feathers. And Lia Golemba hand cut the leaf pattern for the bustle. 

I started out by researching on methods for manipulating light and I found fiber optics to be rather beautiful. They mitigated the need for having wires run all over the dress, but instead pumped light through almost invisible tubes. 
I had to create 3D enclosures that aligned the fiber optics to the RGB LED's. That was done using a Formlabs 3D printer. It uses two UV lasers to cure resin that slowly rises out of a liquid bath as a solid object. [really cool shit] 
The LED's had to be programmed to emanate a pulsating pattern created from the heartbeat of the Bride.  A gentle wave of light washed down the dress with every beat of her heart. That pattern was triggered by a Pulse sensor, processed using a Xadow Arduino computer which lit up 90 individual LED's to light up the fiber-optics. 

The making of the dress was supported by Make Fashion which were sponsored by OnConference, SparkFun Electronics, WestJet and Seeed Studio.


Facts about the dress:

-It has over a kilometer of fiber optic. 
-It takes 10, 3D printed enclosures to hold the LED's and fiber optics. 
-There are several thousand feathers hand-sewn to the dress. 
-The corset was hand made to fit the exact measurements of our model. 
-300+ man-hours were required to conceptualize, prototype, and create this dress. 
-one tiny computer is responsible for making everything run
- 3 batteries are required to keep all the lights lit up, and it will run for several hours.

We had many design challenges. Key among them was working with fiber optics. Finding ways to align them and ensure maximum light transmission took days to trial and error. There were simply no guides online that showed how to mate the ends of the fibers with lights without requiring expensive lens assemblies. 
Our biggest challenge was time. We had ideas aplenty, but time so little. I wanted to include wireless charging capabilities, make it water resistant, use fiber optics in entirely different ways, use better feathers like those of ostriches, bleached pheasants, and other assortments of white fluffery. I would also love create a housing array for the lights that is beautiful enough to have entirely exposed, in a different location, and beautiful in itself. 

We plan to keep on producing similar dresses for brides, made to order. Contact me at if you have questions or would like to discuss how you can get one for yourself and how you'd like your's to be unique. 

Video and better photos will come within a month. And more exciting projects and dresses, possibly mens-wear as well, within a year. 

Click thumbnails below to view large.

Photo by Jeff McDonald

How I imagine the future of Wearable Tech

I have been a long time advocate of wearable tech, I have always enjoyed a close relationship with technology. I spend most of my time every day interacting with some sort of electronic device. Weather it be my computers, cameras or cell phone. I am pretty much dependent on them as my knowledge assistant and tools of creation.

Just recently I got introduced to the Calgary based team of technologists and designers at Make Fashion
Last year was Make Fashion's inaugural year, with a fashion show at Endeavour Arts that featured clothing embedded with electronics. The clothing responded to movement, proximity, light and sound, by emitting light. And while it's incredibly beautiful to look at, though the practical usefulness is limited. I am on the Make Fashion team this year as well, I have teamed up with Catherine Hazin in creating a dress that has a biomimetic design, and it too responds to movement and also the pulse of the dancer that'll wear it, using lights. My ideas for future dresses are much more elaborate and hopefully practically useful. 

The aim of the Make Fashion show is to approach the idea of wearable electronics with a flair of high style, with the end aim of marrying the high style with high functionality. The tech industry, in large part, is lacking the former making wearable tech still feel alien on the wearers body. We aim to change that. 

I have been closely examining the progress that companies are making in the field of putting electronics on the body, Google Glass is in my opinion the best example, along with Pebble [steel] , Samsung [Gear] and a host of other [largely single function] devices.  

The purposes of wearable tech include functions like monitoring behaviour/health, behaviour modification, social media monitoring, knowledge retrieval/vital information display, entertainment, accessibility, home automation [responding to current condition of self with temperature, lighting..ect. of home], real time learning/assistance and many others.

Combining all these functions into one device would be a dream, but is for all intents and purposes, unattainable. The current state of technology largely being the limiting factor. Batteries are incredibly inefficient, interface design is paltry and natural learning processes need development. 

I feel wearable tech will help extend a lot of human senses. Give me a moment to explain that:
Going back thousands of years, before the invention of writing, all the knowledge we had had to be stored in the mind. It was passed on orally, and if someone forgot about it, then it remained forgotten. When writing was developed, thoughts could be lifted from the mind and remembered on paper. Essentially eliminating the need for remembering stories, anecdotes and knowledge. The printing press further accelerated that. 

Very similarly, the invention of the camera, movie camera and television extended the sense of sight in that you didn't have to be present to witness an event. 
Audio recording extended the sense of hearing. Robotics, and a host of other technologies, are simulating muscles, so that you can use your hand to control much larger motorized machines. 
Taste and smell are senses that are possible to extend, but seem awkward to do so.

The next technology that is going to a game changer, is mind control. The use of electrodes, grey matter scanners or whatever technology used to analyze thoughts, using them to bypass all the above senses. For ultimately, all of the sense are hardwired to the mind, so one could theoretically bypass them and access them through the mind by means of tapping into a nerve.

Now going back to wearable tech, the first wave of wearable technology is to take the stimulation and simulation of senses off the desk, shelf... and place it onto the wearers body in a unobtrusive form as possible. 
Google glasses essentially gives someone a TV, communication device, camera, and a bunch of software enabled functions, into a region above the eye. The interface is limited. It has a navigation slider along the side, voice recognition and eye blink detection along with the cell phone it's connected to, as interface devices. But it's presumably going to get a hell of a lot better. 

I recently got to play with the Leap Motion Controller , a device that translates movements of the hand gestures, without touch, into computer interface directions. It is incredibly small, accurate and has no perceptible latency. 

There is the Galaxy Gear watch, essentially a touchscreen interface, shrunken down to the size of a wristwatch, with a camera attached. It's a good concept, but the interface is incredibly useless. Imagine a 1.5 inch touchscreen. The only practical motion is to swipe, and click, which has 5 possible outcomes. [up, down, left, right, touch] 

Now if the two previously mentioned devices got married, they'd produce a watch that you don't have to touch and has a possible interface surface area of 2-3 sq feet in 3d space, and is only limited by the many ways you can form your hand. That would be a beautiful device I'd buy in a heartbeat. 

The ultimate device does all of the above functions and will be completely invisible. 

This is my vision for the final version of technology on a personal level.

Lets start with the brain, it's a computer that uses electronic pulses via the nerves to communicate with all the sensory organs. With enough knowhow, one could theoretically 'hack' into the nerves and send signals that simulate a sense like vision, or touch, without the wearer touching anything. For example, you could simply think about talking, and the device would take that signal from the brain and transcribe it into text which can be easily understood by machines. Sending a message to a friend could theoretically be as simple as thinking of saying "send a text to Kelly Hofer: Lets meet up for coffee tonight", an incoming text could be conveyed in one of two ways, by sending the necessary information into the optic nerve and showing the text message in your field of view, or by sending it though the audio nerve and reading it out loud using a synthesized voice.

It's a odd thing to consider, but come along and consider this with me. Imagine a robot in a workplace, say, a construction site. It's perfectly hooked up to your body, in very much the same way as in the movie Avatar. Every move is mimicked by the avatar/robot and the user simply has to think about it. And all the sense are pumped directly back to the human in real time. You could simply sit at home, and think yourself through a day. Experiencing all the pleasures, subtleties, and senses in full, except that the body is in lying in total stillness and none of the physical senses are being used, but instead are being overridden with a direct link to the brain. 


I feel that is going a bit far. But it seems like a possible reality with the rate at which technology is growing exponentially smaller, faster and more powerful. 

But for now, I'm happy to have a two year old phone in my pocket. It does the job, even though I have to physically pull it out, unlock it, press the app, insert information to get information back. It's a process that could be sped up. 


Upcoming Make Fashion Event. TechBurlesque. Jan 17. Get tickets [Here] 

A sexy, illuminating fundraiser for the 'Make Fashion' show on March 1.