Electronics and clothing mix in ‘wearable technology’ class in Nashua

Imagine a nice-looking coat with built-in sonar so that it vibrates when it comes near objects, alerting its blind wearer to be careful.

Or a snowboarding jacket with iPod controls on the outside of the sleeve, so you can skip the Celine Dion song your little sister snuck onto your playlist without exposing yourself to the cold winds of the ski area.

Or a zipper whose teeth are part of an electrical circuit connected to lights and speakers in your clothing, so that zipping and unzipping turns you into a miniature disco. (I won’t say what is being unzipped.)

Or shoes that generate electricity every time you step.

Actually, you don’t have to imagine: All these exist in various forms, as do “Taser coats” that zap assailants, and mysterious electronics-laden garments of various types used by the military.

They’re all part of a “wearable technology” trend that mixes sewing and soldering, using conductive thread, metallic materials, and a variety of ever-smaller batteries, microchips and LEDs to create whole new categories of clothes.

Done non-professionally, it has become a very cool subset of the do-it-yourself/hacker culture called the maker movement.

You can learn more Saturday from 1-4 p.m. at MakeIt Labs, during the latest of the excellent classes offered at Nashua’s hackerspace. Learn more at the MakeIt Labs website.

(Yes, I wrote about another MakeIt Labs class last week. No, they haven’t hired me as a publicist. I just can’t resist a good story.)

Angela Sheehan of Dover is teaching the class, which is called Introduction to Soft Circuits, another term for the funky field. Her day job is designing footwear for Timberland, but wearable technology is her hobby, or even more than a hobby.

“I come from more of the crafty background,” she said – meaning somebody who likes making crafts, not somebody who’s sneaky.

“I liked to tinker, and then I took a class called Physical Computing,” said Sheehan, a 2007 graduate of Bennington College. “It was about taking the computer interaction outside of a screen and a mouse.”

A senior project led her to “e-textiles” and other products the overlap the fabric and electronics worlds, and she took off.

Her timing was good, because wearable technology has grown along with the whole maker movement, and a support structure of companies making conductive thread, battery/chip holders that can slip inside clothing, even metallic fabrics.

“It used to be really difficult to get the materials. They were only available in large quantities for manufacturers. I had to use my affiliation with the college to get supplies,” she said. “Make Magazine, the DIY movement, has really brought all those materials to a hobbyist level.”

Sheehan has given classes and presentations at hackerspaces and Maker Faires, as their conferences are known, and she’s still happily tinkering.

Her current project involve hula hoops that do cool stuff like make music, but not because of technology inside the hoops themselves.

“The idea is to have the interaction outside the hoop and have it part of your costuming,” she said. “The tech is on the jacket – patches have conductive material, hooked up to the programmable circuit.”

When the hoop touches a patch, it completes a circuit and causes a specific sound, so that sufficiently skillful hula hooping can make music of sorts.

“It’s still a work in progress,” she added.

No specific skills are needed for the class, which costs $60 – not even the ability to use a needle and thread, although that wouldn’t hurt.

Sheehan will instruct on using a firefly kit from a company called Sparkfun, that has conductive thread, coin cell batteries (like those for a watch) and LEDs to create a programmable light-up firefly. She’ll bring lots of other stuff to experiment with, too.

“It’s like embroidery or beading,” she said,

At past classes, students have ranged from quilters “who wanted to learn about augmenting costumes” to geeky electronics makers curious about a new source material to “one couple who didn’t want to know how to sew or do electronics, they were just excited to see what this was.”

Curiosity is the only requirement.

Granite Geek appears Mondays in the Telegraph, and online at www.granitegeek.org. David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com.