In Fall 2011, I joined Leah Buechley’s class at the MIT Media Lab, . You can see some of my experiments along the way here and here; and you can read all about the final projects produced .

For my project, a collaboration with Jill Sherman, we designed an experimental wearable that would sense and respond to the action of breathing. The “Breathe” jacket is an inversion of typical protective gear—for example, a bullet-proof vest. “Breathe” externalizes an interior system by registering the pattern of inhale and exhale in the wearer via a rubber stretch sensor; the jacket then actuates this data in light patterns. Rather than shield its wearer from harm, “Breathe” points back toward the body and its idiosyncracy, rhythmic reliability and frailty at once.

It works! Video below.

from on .

We started looking at two kinds of wearables for inspiration—first, sculptural form in high fashion, as you see here:

images: Alexander McQueen on

And second, we were looking at wearable, performative art projects like Takehito Etani’s , as you see below. I’ve written about this project ; The Masticator is made from pig skin, and it’s an externalized system for displaying the act of chewing. We were similarly interested in externalizing an internal set of biological processes, keeping it connected to the both attractive and repulsive qualities of (synthetic) skin while also displaying a process that’s delicate and nuanced.

There are a couple of projects that directly precede ours, and we were able to look to those for structural inspiration:

Synne Geirsdatter Frydenberg’s above and Anna Salmi’s “Aer” project. This is another spot-on precedent for our project; the garment registers the breath of the wearer and augments its changes with auditory signals. (Alas, no video for this anywhere, but to her thesis pdf.)

Salmi’s corset structure inspired our own:

To sense the change in breath, we started with an 8-inch . Filled with carbon-black particles, this sensor is flexible and pliable while also increasing its resistivity as it gets stretched. It was originally designed, we’re told, to measure breath data for astronauts in the 1970s—a nice precedent for our project. Here are the specs from Robotshop:

• 8″ long flexible cylindrical cord
• Measures stretch, displacement and force
• Changes resistance when stretched

The Images Scientific 8″ Flexible Stretch Sensor is a unique component that changes resistance when stretched. When relaxed the material has a nominal resistance of 1000 ohms per linear inch. As the stretch sensor is stretched the resistance gradually increases. When the sensor is stretched to 150% of its original length (8″ X 150% = 12″), its resistance will approximately double to 2.0 Kohms per inch.

The stretch is a new way to measure stretch, displacement and force. The sensor is a flexible cylindrical cord with hook electrical terminals at each end. The sensor measures 8 inches long, not including the electrical terminals, and only .060 inches diameter!

Applications for the Images Scientific 8″ Flexible Stretch Sensor:
• Virtual gloves and suits
• Robot exoskeletons

We knew from this course that the Lilypad Simple Arduino was the best choice for our wearable project, and we got hold of this synthetic skin from (where they claim that “gore + chic = trés chic!”).

We put together a test model just to see if the circuitry design was operational, and we used to lay out our code in a graphics environment. We had what Kate Hartman calls with this one. It works! It blinks!

So then we set about thinking of the construction of the piece, and how we wanted the lights to reflect the organic, biological ideal we’d set out to create. We collected some images of lungs:

And we made some drawings based on further inspiration from the field of fashion:


We mapped out our light patten so that we could have LEDs in parallel but in an organic, dispersed structure:

We traced the lines onto a piece of thin red cotton—it acts as a “shell” and surface mount for the circuitry, and it gives the skin an even-more organic cast of pink. And then we sewed over the lines with conductive steel thread:

There were mistakes, of course—getting the proper tension the machine.

And then we used our original test model “belt” design again. This time we sewed linen onto denim for reinforcement, and we used grommets for a corset pattern based on Anna Salmi’s project above.

All wired up, with some troubleshooting, naturally:

We then attached the red shell to the belt, and laid it into our skin fabric apron/halter:

We tried it on (Sara) to get a sense of the fit of the piece:

…made some ties from grommets and oversized rubber bands:

And: it worked!

It’s true that it didn’t turn out quite as elaborate as I’d hoped—but the video above shows how it morphed into a more interactive project, with metaphorical registers beyond those originally intended. I’ll explore more about the process in another post.

One thought on “unknown armature: breathe

  1. Love the way you have documented this, including precedents and sources, and how you made explicit the variation between initial expectation and result (ie actual learning). Great project!

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