Over the past week, I was in Long Beach, California, attending the annual United States Institute for Theatre Technology’s conference. My initial intent for going was to learn more about combining electrical components, such as Electroluminescent Wire (or EL-Wire), with costume design to create self-illuminating garments. While I did glean some pertinent information, such as different fabrics that will be useful and different control options, the information learned overall were things I had already taught myself through research and hands-on experimentation.

One session that I was looking forward to was Cyber Costumes, and was seemingly focused on how to integrate lighting systems into clothing. While that was the case, I did not learn anything new, and actually am questioning some of the information that was given. The session focused on different lighting tools, such as EL-Wire and EL-Tape (similar to EL-Wire, but was wider and only illuminated on one side), and showed various costumes that implemented those tools. In addition to the different lighting accessories available, the session also talked about various methods of control, specifically an Arduino designed for costume implementation called a Lily Pad Arduino. The Lily Pad is a microprocessor that allows the user to program various effects into the tiny processing chip, and operate the attachment, such as EL-Wire, accordingly. In essence, a user can program the Lily Pad to cycle through several different EL-Wires and light them up in a user-determined pattern (similar to a chase effect). One interesting thing I had taken away from the session, besides the Lily Pad (prior to the session, I had done research into using PIC microcontrollers to implement various effects using EL-Wire. While possibly, the Lily Pad seems a more beneficial route, as it is specifically designed for costumes), is that the Lily Pad can be controlled wirelessly using a device called an X-Bee. While not much information was given, it has become obvious that I will need to do research into Arduinos and the X-Bee to further my research project.

 One of the experts on the panel had previously worked for Barnum and Bailey Circus using EL-Wire and EL-Tape to create self-illuminating garments. For those of you who are unaware, EL-Wire is a copper wire covered in powdered phosphorous. When an electrical charge is carried through the wire, the phosphorous emits a glow. The color is determined by the color of the outer neon sheath surrounding the wire. Another questioner asked if it was possible to change the color of the light emitted by the EL-Wire using paint. One of the panel members had said no, but I almost wonder if it is in fact possible. I will concede, using standard flat paint you can buy at any hardware store would not work (light would not be able to emit through the paint), but what about the cheap arts and crafts stained glass paint you can buy at any Arts and Crafts store? That, theoretically, would be able to emit light through it and alter the color of the light. However, until I actually sit down and experiment with it, I cannot say for certain.

The session also introduced me to conductive fabrics. While the notion of conductive fabric seems counterintuitive and unsafe from a physics based stand-point (insulated fabric made from rubber fibers makes more sense in terms of safety), its use is actually quite interesting. Conductive fabrics’ initial purpose is to spread a charge throughout the fabric, preventing a charge from entering the body at one concentrated point. It’s predominately used in creation of electrically safe gloves and other electrically safety clothing pieces. But what interested me is its application as a sort of switch that can be sewn into costumes. Imagine two lead wires connected to two separate pieces of conductive fabrics. Apart, the circuit is not complete. But when brought together, say by pressing the two pieces together, the circuit is complete and the accessory lights up. This ultimately would allow user controlled garments to exist on stage without the need to press or manipulate a hard plastic switch attached to a battery pack. In essence, the soft switch (soft because it is made from two pieces of fabric), can be created into the costume, allowing for more interesting designs.

In essence, the conference had given me some new information to consider when creating self-illuminating garments, such as different types of processors and the notion of soft switches, but much of the information covered I had already learned through self-exploration and research. If the conference has taught me anything, it is that I need to stop gathering research for some aspects, and start putting my knowledge to use.