Becky Stern. All photos courtesy of Adafruit/Stern
When most people think about the future of wearable technology, they picture Apple Watches and FitBit bracelets that are more affordable and wornas commonly as underwear. However, Becky Stern pictures a jacket whose zipper shuts off the annoying TVs in her favorite bar, a GPS dog harness that track's her dog's run, or a skirt with embedded LED sensors that sparkles as she moves. Then she sews and programs them, and shares for free what she's made and how-to make it in detailed step-by-step tutorials online.
Though Stern has been sewing, tinkering, photographing, filming and editing things since at least the age of eight, she didn't combine all of her skills until attending Parsons Design and Tech program. At Parsons she made one of her first electronic craft projects: a set of plush steaks embedded with LEDs. (They symbolized the "radiation process most American beef goes through during processing.") In graduate school, Stern started producing video tutorials for MAKE—a passion project that eventually turned into a full-time gig.
Since dropping out of grad school, Stern's work has been exhibited internationally, featured in books, and viewed hundreds of thousands of time online. She's become something of a celebrity on YouTube, hosting weekly wearable show-and-tells, uploading new videos of inventions, and answering questions as the go-to guru for hacking fashion.
Stern puts her expertise to use as the director of wearable electronics at Adafruit, a New York-based factory that manufactures smaller components and shares tutorials so that people can design and program their own open-source gadgets. Wearable computing projects promoted by Stern are turning crafting hobbyists into coders, strengthening the DIY-arm of the wearable revolution.
Taking a break from her work designing the future, Stern spoke with me about fashion-friendly tech, data privacy, and LED tiaras.
VICE: You make projects that are useful (the Citi Bike Helmet), playful (the beating heart headband), and just plain fun (the firewalker LED sneakers). Your work feels different from other wearables. How would you describe your process, especially given your DIY approach?
Becky Stern: My work in wearables started long before the first Fitbit. It doesn't aim to be mass-produced, but rather radically customized through the interpretation of instructions I publish. Wearables are so personal that I think it's heavy handed to suppose that one [product] will work the same way for everyone.
Also, my work is rarely about the final device as much as it is about the design and building of it. Adafruit's wearables hope to reach enthusiastic novices in both craft and tech, and we hope to give those novices confidence, knowledge, and inspiration to build their own technology. This gives folks more agency over all the tech they use, encouraging more critical engagement about the devices we use every day. What's cooler to a little girl: the light up shoes her parent bought her or the accelerometerladen magic wand that activates color changes on her LED tiara that her parent made with her?
DIY philosophy encourages free information sharing and open source. The consumers of the technology are presumed to be interested in becoming builders of that technology, which is very different from the "we create, you consume" mentality of Apple and other mass market companies in the wearable space.
Your work is about invention, but it's also about sharing and documenting your process through tutorials. Why make art in online spaces? Why share these tutorials?
I get a strange satisfaction from getting ideas and processes out of my head/hands and onto the internet. I've never been able to fully explain my motivation to finish projects and put them online. Readers often give back their own ideas and suggestions; sharing creates an open exchange that's very helpful when I'm stuck or out of my league.
What becomes possible when coding turns into a mainstream hobby?
When coding knowledge becomes commonplace, the gap between technology maker and technology user will begin to close. Consumers will have more critical understanding of their devices and online networks, which will undoubtedly change their behavior, whether it decreases unintentional privacy violations or fundamentally changes tech company's product development and marketing campaigns.
Intel announced a collaboration with Fossil on techdriven accessories, and Google Glass is working with the makers of Ray Ban and Oakley sunglasses to develop more fashionable eyewear. What do you think of tech companies' forays into fashion?
These collaborations are inevitable as tech and fashion companies finally learn how to relate to one another. They hardly speak the same language, have vastly different value systems, not to mention business models.
You better believe that if there is an activity, there will be a wearable for it soon. I'm sure in the coming years we'll see brilliant ideas executed poorly, and idiotic ideas made mega-popular through great business decisions. I think tech is moving quickly towards the seasonal replacement pattern that fashion has long established, and I find that a bit depressing for the planet, since circuit boards and batteries are far harder to reuse or recycle than out-of-style garments.
Could DIY wearables help us circumvent some of the problems of data ownership and privacy sidestepped by larger companies?
I like the idea that shiny metallic EMF-blocking clothing and accessories could become in vogue because they represent data privacy—this is a technological factor that informs a visual one. Building your own wearables definitely makes you understand more about what the big guys are up to. If you learn how to code your own GPS logger, you become painfully aware that your phone is probably logging your every move and uploading that info to a server somewhere, or at least that it could be doing that without your knowledge or consent.
I wouldn't say DIY wearables provide an alternative to the big guys, though, as smartphones and other "mandatory" devices of the modern era can't easily be DIY-ed at the level of compact reliability necessary for staying as connected as we like.
How do you get people to want to wear your products?
Fortunately I don't have to try to make people want to wear something, I get to try to get them to want to make something. Whether they wear it is often irrelevant to the goal of teaching and helping folks have a good time learning tech and crafts. Creating new use cases that are compelling enough to get people to buy products is a challenge for wearable tech companies: The scenario has to be more compelling than a slick marketing campaign, or the product will fizzle after the first users get tired of it. Motivations for putting something on your body range wildly and are very personal. I think it's easier to put something on your body if you made it yourself than if you bought it—you've already invested a part of yourself in it.
See Becky's products on her website.