Will the new MetaWear board make wearables the next big thing?

[kickstarter url=https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/guardyen/metawear-production-ready-wearables-in-30-minutes width=620]

People have been predicting wearables would be the next big thing for about as long as I’ve been involved in technology. But lately the predictions have become louder and more frequent, and there are a growing number of micro-controller platforms aimed at the wearables market.

My belief is that the deciding factor about what is going to be the next big thing is (at least usually) its technological maturity — that the technology has reached the point where it’s useable by people other than the alpha geeks. It appears possible that we’ve reached that point for wearables, as the three factors that matter most when dealing with them — size, battery life and communications — are starting to converge towards the stage where the devices are not just possible, but usable.

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Enter the MetaWear, a new ARM-powered wearables board that’s the size of a quarter, has really low power consumption, and comes with built-in Bluetooth LE for communication. I remember playing with Leah Buechley’s LilyPad Arduino all the way back in 2009 and the differences between the two are striking, not just in the hardware — it lacks the characteristic sewing pads of the LilyPad — but also the philosophy behind it.

The sew holes are too big and too use-case specific. It didn’t really make sense to us. However there are still a lot of vias through [the board] which you could thread a very small needle through, and that might be one of my next hacks. – Laura Kassovic

I talked to Laura Kassovic—one of the co-founders of MbientLab, which created the board—about the MetaWeartheir Kickstarter project, and what they’re doing with the board themselves.

The LilyPad — and its Adafruit descendants like the Flora and the Gemma — are basically Arduino boards at heart. That is great for those of us that have a lot of experience using the Arduino platform, but there are a whole bunch of people who find micro-controllers difficult and unintuitive. The MetaWear is a wearable board aimed at Android and iOS — or even node.js — developers rather than people that hack on micro-controllers.

Instead of uploading your code to the micro-controller board, it comes pre-loaded with its own custom firmware — sort of like an Arduino running Firmata — and you talk to the board from the MetaWear’s Android and iOS SDKs, or using a generic Bluetooth LE library like noble from node.js. In other words, you don’t have to worry about cramming the smarts of your wearables into the limited computing power of the board itself. Instead, you use your smart phone and its sensors — accelerometer, magnetometer and gyroscope — and location information — Wi-Fi and cell positioning, and GPS — without having to roll out any hardware.

We’ve already seen the arrival of the Javascript and web developers to the maker community, and you have to wonder whether mobile developers will be the next group of hackers to arrive on the scene, because suddenly they have access to hardware they can play with in their native languages.

But that’s not all—by exposing the board’s API via Bluetooth LE, this is a board that’s doesn’t have a native language. If your language and platform of choice has some way to talk to Bluetooth LE devices, you can talk to it. Despite the fact it’s actually not that hard to learn to work with an Arduino — or another micro-controller platform — a lot of people see it as a barrier to entry. The MetaWear just removed that barrier. That’s powerful.

MetaWear reached its funding goal on Kickstarter in less than 48 hours. If you want to pick one up (the board and basic accessories are available for US$30) the project still has a couple of weeks on the clock before the Kickstarter finishes.

General Specification

  • Bluetooth 4.0 (Low energy)
  • Android and iOS sample MetaWear App to get started
  • Documentation on Github
  • Simple API calls to connect with Bluetooth
  • Simple API calls to control peripherals and sensors
  • FCC / CE certified
  • Downloadable CAD enclosures
  • Wireless software updates (OTA)
  • ANCS compatible
  • BLE range of up to 150ft

Hardware Specification

  • Nordic BLE SOC + ARM Cortex M0
  • 256KB flash memory + 8KB RAM.
  • Bluetooth Low Energy stack + Metaware Firmware
  • 3.7V DC (with on-board power regulator)
  • USB micro rechargeable Lithium Ion battery
  • 2 analog/digital I/O pins + I2C for extensions
  • 3-axis accelerometer (w/ tilt, orientation, freefall detection)
  • Ultra Bright RGB LED
  • Coin vibrator motor
  • Simple 4Khz Buzzer
  • Temperature sensor
  • Micro push-button

Imogen Heap’s Glove Project Launches a Kickstarter Campaign

c94cbb2c94f95e309ae875a7f0cb84d4_largeMaker Camp attracts its share of renowned personalities with hidden (or not-so-hidden) maker tendencies. Last summer, I was lucky enough to talk with musician Imogen Heap about her work. It’s no secret that I’m a fan of her work, and when I heard she would be hanging out at Maker Camp, I called dibs before anyone could say a word. As we spoke, she let on about her newest endeavor, The Gloves Project.

Heap and a team of makers have been developing a pair of high-tech gloves, called the Mi.Mu, that will allow users to manipulate sounds via gestures, allowing a quite literally hands-on style of writing and performing. Last week they launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund development and distribution for the interactive, MIDI-manipulating gloves.

The gloves are equipped with several sensors that will record movement in space, positions of individual fingers and the twisting of the wrist. They also provide feedback in the form of a vibrating motor and an RGB LED to indicate which mode you are in and to help decipher where you are in space. These sensors feed in to their board (an x-OSC) which is also equipped with more sensors. The glove connects to your computer over wi-fi and can be used with several audio programs including Ableton Live, Logic Pro, and Max/MSP. The result is a visually stunning performance that you’ll want to emulate — you can see a video of Heap using the gloves to play the first song she composed on them below.

You may be thinking, where do I sign up? Well, if you head over to the Kickstarter page, you can reserve one for a pledge of just under $2,000 (or twice that for a pair). If that’s a bit steep, the team also released open-source plans for the gloves so you can make them yourself.


Building Post-Apocalyptic Wearables

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Niklas Roy and Kati Hyyppä held a workshop around the theme of “Next Utopia” in Namur, Belgium, which they interpreted to mean transforming the participants into cyborgs with the help of a series of wearable projects they created at the event.

Some of the projects included a wearable barbot that uses hand pumps — the kind used for blood pressure cuffs — to dispense the liquid. There was also a wearable mechanical noise machine, a wearable graffiti-spraying crane, an instant rainbow machine, and a wearable periscope. One thing cool about the workshop is that the organizers elected to not use electronics or computers at all — all projects were built from plastic dollar-store trash as well as hardware store parts, .

The workshop was organized as part of the digital art and technology conference KIKK, which takes place at Namur, Belgium from Nov. 7-9. [photo credit: Niklas Roy]