Ever since high school, I’ve had a wild fashion dream: to design a robot dress. Not just any robot dress, mind you, but an elegant gown that can do things like hug people and move with me as I wear it. Never did I imagine that by revealing this fantasy during an interview, I’d have the opportunity to inspire so many people.
Smart Girls and #AskHerMore
In 2015, I appeared on a panel hosted by Meredith Walker, co-founder of Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, on behalf of Qualcomm Thinkabit Lab, a combination engineering lab, makerspace and classroom built to inspire students in STEM from all cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds.
As part of Smart Girls’ #AskHerMore initiative, Meredith told us panelists to imagine we were on the red carpet, accepting a Nobel Prize for our work in engineering: “They point the microphone at you and ask, ‘What are you wearing?’ What would you say?”
I flashed back to the idea I’ve had since high school to create a crazy, elegant gown that moves autonomously as I move, with a control pad on the inside and maybe steam coming out. I could see it in my mind: me, on the red carpet, describing how I made the robot dress.
My answer inspired even wilder tech-fashion ideas from them, so I knew it would be interesting to other people as well. I brought the idea back to Qualcomm Corporate R&D, socialized it, found a VP champion, Charles Bergan, and eventually pulled together a team of four Qualcomm Technologies’ engineers – on the hardware side Donald Hutson and Paul Ferrell, and on the software side I had Dr. Sarah Gibson and Jim Wilson. Together we all started to get to work.
Little did we know what we were in for.
“Excuse me – Is that an octopus under your dress?”
I conveyed to the team my vision of a dress that moved and flowed, yet hid all of its robotics under eye-catching, beautiful material. Best of all, if people at a party wanted to give me a hug, the dress could hug them back…
Seems only natural, right?
Inspired by the chance for big-time innovation, we started pulling together the resources we would need.
I had envisioned a belt around my waist with arms that worked like an elephant’s trunk. But an octopus tentacle composed of curved segments was better suited to lifting the fabric in different directions and curling it in front of me.
Originally, I wanted eight tentacles, but coordinating motion among eight tentacles is challenging. So we moved to six, and then settled on four. That still left plenty of problems for our hardware engineers to solve.
“I really like the shock-the-world idea of a moving dress,” Donald says: “a low-profile, mechanized system hidden under an elegant piece of fabric. But building an octopus tentacle is difficult. We went through a couple of clunky iterations at first, then kept making it thinner and smaller to get to something that the costume designers could work with.”
“I had seen how the curved segments of tentacle fit together,” says Paul, “but they made the tentacle look stiff, and we needed complete flexibility to operate smoothly with all that fabric. Once I had the segments in my hands, it became easier to imagine that they would add up to something so kinetic and fluid.”
We started by machining the parts out of carbon fiber, then later switched to 3D-printing them: the limbs, ring gears and connectors. It took about two weeks and a total of 250 cubic inches of plastic to print them.
We took our ideas about the dress to the U.C. San Diego Department of Theatre and Dance, and they paired us with a graduate student who designs costumes for their performances. Our design is for a one-color main skirt. The tentacles would then lift fabric of a contrasting color from beneath the main skirt through slits and layers.
When I approached Jaymee Ngernwichit, a costume designer with UCSD, she jumped at the chance to be part of the team. She says, “When I first heard the big idea for a robot dress, I realized what a great opportunity we had to show the world how the interactivity between seemingly disparate disciplines can produce magic and, hopefully, inspiration.”
Fashion was only one factor in the equation; the dress had to be designed so that the tentacles would not get tangled in it. That required giant sleeves in the fabric so the tentacles could move spherically to wind and unwind without snagging the material.
An octopus doesn’t have to worry about moving its tentacles gracefully and keeping them out of one another’s way, but that doesn’t mean that that type of movement is easy to program.
We wanted the look and action of tentacles, which meant having every joint within each tentacle move around in circles continuously for fluid motion. We settled on three sections per tentacle to give us the range of motion we needed, plus the ability to move straight up and straight down. Each joint is capable of spinning like a wheel without affecting the other joints or tentacles.
Robotics is hard work.
Programming and UI
The software behind the dress is a combination of C++ and Python, with some bash scripts.
Jim worked on the lower-level software that communicates with servo motors in the dress, and Paul did a lot of the motion programming on the tentacles. “I’m a FIRST Robotics mentor,” Paul says, “so I’m on board for any robot I can help design and use. Not only is this an innovative robot to build, but it’s also a good platform for anybody interested in STEM.”
Sarah programmed the state machine and worked on a user interface so the wearer can tell the dress what to do. “The robot is driven by a small, wireless keyboard attached to the wearer’s arm,” she says. “We’ve programmed different buttons for different motion sequences. I was interested in the robot dress from the start because it was such a cool fashion.”
For the brain behind the robot, we chose the DragonBoard 410c, that is available through Arrow Electronics, a development board built on the Qualcomm Snapdragon 400-series processor from Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. The “c” stands for “community,” and we wanted to make it easy for other designers and developers in the community not only to make their own robot dresses, but also to add features supported by the DragonBoard 410c, like computer vision, sensors, graphics processing and Wi-Fi. The DragonBoard 410c running Linaro is a familiar development environment for anybody who codes on a Linux workstation. Plus, the DragonBoard 410c is an accessible platform for the students I work with in the Thinkabit Lab.
Ready for the Red Carpet
The robot dress is ready for its debut, six months after the first CAD model and three months after we started fabricating most of the parts. As Donald says, the dress is a good starting point for complex robotic tasks on a wearable. We think of it as an easel for other developers who are looking for a fun way to get into robotics and show their friends what they’ve built.
In tech, it’s exciting to work on projects that can have real-life implications for people. How cool would it be to wear your work to a party? I imagine a Halloween bash or a gala fundraiser attended exclusively by people wearing robotic wearables they’ve programmed. Better yet, I love the visual of clothing interacting with others.
I’m excited to see the innovation that will be possible on the foundation we’ve created, and I truly hope this robotic dress technology will one day storm the red carpet. Thanks to the work with our future inventors in the Thinkabit Lab, I have no doubt that the next generation of engineers can make this dream (and many more!) a reality.