Project Proposal: Wearable LED Display
Made by nsridhar
My proposal for this project is to create a sewn wearable LED display that can be programmed and taken on or off easily without being permanently attached to your clothing. I would ideally like it to be able to change colors, and also have some simple interactive component to it that could allow it to cycle through different modes or animations. As someone with a background in physical computing, I am interested to see what can be done with soft computation and how well these flexible materials lend themselves to programmable outputs. I have seen microcontrollers like the Teensy, the Photon, or even adafruit's sewable Gemma boards, but most LEDs I've seen used in fabrics are single LEDs placed in specific locations to light up certain parts of images or add some excitement to a sewn pattern or artwork. I think it is valuable to look at the LEDs as a kind of screen to display artwork as well, and create a wearable product that could run animations or even GIFs in this flexible, almost sprite-based format.
Here is a small scale sketch prototype I made to start exploring this idea and seeing if a very small grid could produce something readable when animated:
An idea for the final product could be a scarf or something similarly large scale that had LEDs sown into it at regular intervals. This would allow you to run animations that would read differently if you were wearing it loosely, tightly, had it wrapped up around your face, etc.
For a project like this you would need:
- A scarf
- At least 80 individual LEDs, but likely more depending on the size and resolution of animation you want to display
- several small microcontrollers (many if you are using gemmas) that could be hidden or sewn into the scarf
- a portable power source (ideally something like a powerbank but batteries could also work.)
Originally when I started researching for this project I wanted to do something much more ambitious and build a full flexible 4x4x4 3D matrix and turn it into a pin or something that I could wear. After doing some research I realized how out of scope it was, especially since I had not made a matrix like that before. I also did not know how to run so many LEDs off of the few pins on my microcontrollers!
That said I am glad I started on this track because it got me thinking about other types of wearables and I was even able to make a small prototype which ended up looking better than I expected!
While doing research for this product I found out that while some flexible LED matrices are sold, they tend to be kind of uncomfortable and also always placed in a strict rectangular grid format that cannot really be reshaped or cut. The value of making your own display is that you are not restricted to a certain shape or density, and can change the way you want your display to look, whether you want uniform resolution, or even if you want a grid at all. This lets you create a piece of art that can later be programmed in different new ways, creating something that can change and evolve over time as you come up with different animations to run on it.
A problem I discovered while researching this is that it is hard to create a large matrix in a way that does not use an exorbitant amount of power, especially if you want them to be individually addressable. That said, there are several tutorials online (such as this one: http://www.instructables.com/id/Make-a-24X6-LED-matrix/) that teach how to create 2D LED matrices that can be connected in series and run off of individual microcontroller pins. These cut both the amount of pins in use on one controller down as well as the amount of controllers you need overall. People have also made 3D versions of this kind of matrix display, to create animations such as this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SyuLhEUImng
Here are some photos of my sample book!