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Skidmore College

Making electronics fun

November 18, 2013
Leah Buechly ’97
Leah Buechley ’97

Skidmore alumna Leah Buechley ’97 returns to campus this Thursday to explore “Art, Craft, and Technology” in a talk scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 21. Free and open to the public, the event gets under way in Gannett Auditorium, Palamountain Hall.

Now a designer, engineer, artist, and educator, Buechley has explored intersections and juxtapositions of “high” and “low” technologies, new and ancient materials, and masculine and feminine-making traditions. She is a past director of the High-Low Teach research group at the MIT Media Lab, where the work focused on engaging diverse groups of people in developing their own technologies. Although still affiliated with the lab she now works independently at the intersection of art and technology.

Buechley, who earned a B.A. degree in physics at Skidmore, received master’s and doctoral degrees in computer science at the University of Colorado, Boulder. While a student at both schools she also studied dance, theater, fine art, and design.

One of her more recent projects is the LilyPad Arduino construction kit. According to its web site, “LilyPad is a set of sewable electronic pieces designed to help you build soft interactive textiles. A set of sewable electronic modules — including a small programmable computer called a LilyPad Arduino — can be stitched together with conductive thread to create interactive garments and accessories.”

The New York Times (April 9, 2008), describes the LilyPad as a “a small flower-shaped disk with a computer chip at the center, which can be sewn into clothes. Sensors like accelerometers, for measuring acceleration or detecting and measuring vibrations, and light detectors are attached with wires to the “petals,” so the chip can track the wearer’s motion."

The article continues, “Dr. Buechley says the boards can be worn as soft computers ‘in a noninvasive, non-weight-bearing way.’ One dancer used a leotard covered with sensors to control a player piano with her movements. There was no need to pay a pianist to stay in sync.

“While there are many opportunities for fun, Dr. Buechley said the real market could be devices to help the elderly. She is exploring how to knit clothes that monitor a person’s heart rate, breathing and joint movement,” added the Times.

Buechley is a co-author of the book Sew Electric (2013, HLT Press), which Amazon.com calls “A book for all ages. Sew Electric is a set of hands-on LilyPad Arduino tutorials that bring together craft, electronics, and programming. The book walks you through the process of designing and making a series of quirky customizable projects including a sparkling bracelet, a glow in the dark bookmark, a fabric piano, and a monster that sings when you hold its hands. Play with cutting-edge technologies and learn sewing, programming, and circuit design along the way.”

In addition she is an editor of Textile Messages (2013, Peter Lang publishing), which focuses on the emerging field of “e-textiles.” The book describes them as  “articles of clothing, home furnishings, or architectures that include embedded computational and electronic elements.”

Two years ago, Buechley gave a TED talk titled “How to Sketch with Electronics” that shows a number of her designs, including a paper piano that one can sketch, and then play. Video of the talk has garnered nearly a half-million views.

Buechley’s Nov. 21 Skidmore visit is co-sponsored by the departments of art, physics, and theater. Her lecture will follow a daylong campus visit that will include meetings with art and physics faculty and a visit to Professor Sang Wok Lee’s Textile Surface Design class.

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