Connected Studio - Coding For Teens, Building the Dresscode

July 23, 2014 at 03:13 AM | categories: wearables, arduino, programming, iot, BBC, kidscoding | View Comments

At a connected studio Build Studio last week, I along with 2 others in Team Dresscode prototyped tools for an proposition based around wearable tech. We worked through the issues of building a programmable garment, a programmable accessory, and a web app designed for teaching the basic of programming garments and accessories in a portable fashion.

We achieved most of what we set out to achieve, and the garment (as basic as it was) and accessory (again very basic) had a certain "I want one" effect of a number of people, with the web app lowering the barrier to producing behaviours. It was a very hectic couple of days, but as a result of the two days it's now MUCH clear as to how to make this attractive to real teenagers, rather than theoretical ones - which is a bonus.

Probably the most worthwhile thing I've done at work at the BBC in fact and definitely this year - beyond sending a recommendation to people in strategy last summer regarding coding.

The rest of this post covers the background, what we built, why we built it and an overview of how.

NOTE Just because I work in BBC R&D does NOT mean this idea is something the BBC will work on or take on. It does NOT mean that the BBC approves or disapproves of this idea. It just means that I work there, and this was an idea that's been pitched. Obviously I believe in the idea and would like it to go through, but I don't get to decide what I do at work, so we'll see what happens.

The only way I can guarantee it will go through is if I do it myself - so it's well worth noting that this work isn't endorsed by the BBC - I "just" work there

Connected What?

So, connected studio - what is that then?

Connected Studio is a new approach to delivering innovation across BBC Future Media. We're looking for digital agencies, technology start-ups and individual designers and developers (including BBC staff) who want to submit and develop ideas for innovative features and formats.

Note that this process is open to both BBC staff and external. It's a funded programme that seeks to find good ideas worth developing, and providing seed funding to test the ideas and potentially take forward to service. People can arrive in teams or form teams at the studio.

Connected Why?

And what was the focus for this connected studio?

  • Inspiring young people to realise their creative potential through technology
  • We want to inspire Britain's next generation of storytellers, problem solvers and entrepreneurs to get involved with technology and unlock the enormous creative potential it offers
  • The challenge in this brief is to create an appealing digital experience with a coding component for teenagers aged 13-16
  • Your challenge is to make sure we inspire not just teenagers in general, but teenage girls aged 13-16 in particular ** Ideally, we're looking for ideas that appeal to both boys and girls, however, we're particularly keen to see ideas that appeal to girls.

The early stages involve a idea development day - called a Creative Studio. At this stage people either arrive with a team and some ideas and work them up in more detail on the day, or arrive with an idea they have the core of and are looking for people to help them work up the idea, or people simply interested in finding an idea they think is worth working on.

That results in a number of pitches for potential services/events/etc the BBC could take forward. Out of these a number are taken forward to a Build Studio.

What happened on the way to the Build Studio?

So, that's the background. I signed up for the studio because I was interested in joining a team and interested in working with people outside our department - with a grounding either in BBC editorial and/or an external agency's viewpoint. I also had the core of an idea with me - which I'll explain first.

A meeting the previous week an attendee asked the question "If the stereotype of boys is that they're interested in sports, what's the stereotype for girls?". The answer raised by another person there was "fashion". Now, if you're a lady reading this who says "don't be so sexist, I'm not interested in fashion", please bear in mind I don't like sports - things like the commonwealth games, olympics, world cup, etc all leave me cold. Also please bear in mind the person asking the question was a lady herself, and the answer came from another lady at the meeting.

Anyway, true or false, that idea mulled with me over the weekend - with me wondering "what's the biggest possible draw I can think of regarding fashion?". Now the closest I get to fashion is watching Zoolander, so I'm hardly a world authority. Even I know about London Fashion week.

So, the idea I took with me to the creative studio was essentially wearable tech at london fashion week. I'd fleshed out the idea in my head more like this:

  • The BBC hosts an event at London Fashion week regarding wearable tech - with the theme of costumes for TV - which widens it beyond traditional fashion to props and so on. So you can have the light up suits and dresses but also props like wristbands, shoes, animatronic parrots, and so on. (Steampunk pirate?)

  • Anyone and everyone can attend, BUT the catch is they must have created a piece of wearable tech to take to the event - if they do however, they can take their friends with them, and one of them - either themselves or their friends can wear it down the catwalk.

To support this, you could have a handful of TV programmes and trails leading up to this, a web app for designing and simulating garments/etc of your choice, tutorials for how to build garments, and in particular allow transferable skills between the web app to creating programmable garments. So the TV drives you to the web, which drives you to building something, which drives you to an event, which drives you onto TV.

Now at the creative studio, there's essentially a "I've got this kind of idea" wall first thing in the morning - where if you've got an idea you can stand in front of those interested in joining a team and describe the idea- and then say what sort of skills/etc that you're after.

In my case I described the above idea, and said that I was primarily looking for people with an editorial or business oriented perspective. After all, while the above sounds good to me, I was never a teenage girl, and lets face it I was in the geeky non-cool demographic when I was a teenage boy :-) First person who joined me was Emily who has worked on various events at the BBC, primarily in non-techie areas including Radio 1's Big Weekend, Ben from a digital Agency and Tom from Nesta - a great mix of people. Thus formed Team Mix.

Team Mix's refined idea

We worked the idea through the day - with every element up for grabs and reshaping. The idea of being limited to London Fashion week was changed to be the wider set of possibilities - after all the BBC does lots of events from real physical ones like Radio 1 Big Weekend, through glastonbury, the proms, Bang goes the theory, through to event TV including things like The Voice.

After a session with a member of the target audience, we realised that while the idea was neat, for a teenager asking them to build something for a catwalk is actually asking an awful lot. Yes, while showing off, and finding your own identity is a big thing, not losing face, and not doing something to lower your status is a real risk. "I couldn't make that". As a result, we realised that this could be sidestepped by whatever the event was being changed to "this is a collection of your favourite stars wearing these programmable outfits and you get to decide what and how those clothes behave". However, on the upside this made the web element much clearer and better connected.

It left the accessories part slightly less connected, but still the obvious starting point for building wearable tech. This left the idea therefore as a 3 component piece:

  • Celebs with outfits that are programmable - a trend that seems to be happening anyway, and these would be worn at some interesting/cool event - to be decided in conjunction with a group running interesting/cool events :-)

  • A website for creating behvaiours via simple programming - allowing people to store and share their behaviours - the idea being that they control the outfits the celebs will wear.

  • Tutorials for building wearable tech accessories - which are designed to be programmed using the same behaviours as the celeb outfits - making the skills transferable.

So the idea was pitched at the creative studio - and ours got through to the Build Studio stage.

Taking wearable tech to the Build Studio

Out of the 20-30 ideas pitched, it was one of 9 to get through to the build studio. However, another team had ideas related primarily to Digital Wrist Bands, and our team - Team Mix - was asked to join with theirs - Team DWB - resulting the really non-sexy name Team Mix/DWB. That mean 8 teams at the studio. One of the teams didn't show, meaning 7 builds.

It transpired that out of the two teams, only myself and Emily could make it to the build studio - so we chatted to Ben and Tom about what they'd like to see achieved, and also to those on Team DWB. The core of their idea was complementary to our accessories idea so we decided to focus that part of our build on wristbands.

So, what was our ambition for the Build Studio? The ambition was pretty much to do a proof of concept across the board, and to describe the audience benefits in clearer, concrete terms. Again, there was the opportunity to bounce the ideas off a couple of teenagers.

We had help from the connected studio team in seeking assistance from other parts of FM, and after a call across all of BBC R&D, various groups in FM across the north and south we had a volunteer called Tom who was a work placement trainee.

I also ran our aspiration for the build studio via Paul Golds at work, and asked him if he wanted to be involved, and in particular what would be useful, and while he couldn't make it to the Build Studio, he did provide us we simple controllable web object.

What we built at the Build Studio

So the 3 of us set out to build the following over the 2 days of the build studio:

  • A wearable tech garment, which mirrors a web app, and in particular has a collection of programmable lights.

  • A web app for allowing a user to enter a simple program to control a representation of a web garment, with increasing levels of complexity. The app demonstrated implicit repetition, as well as sequence and selection.

  • A bracelet made of thermoplastic with programmable behaviours controlling lights on the device, perhaps incuding feedback/control using an LDR.

And that's precisely what we built.

The wearable garment was built as follows:

  • LEDs were sewn in strips - 8 at a time - onto felt. Conductive thread then looped through and tied on as positive and negative rails - like you would with a breadboard. Then attached underneath the garment so that the lights shone through.

  • The microcontroller for the garment was a Dagu Mini - which is a simple £10 device which is also REALLY simple to hook up to batteries and bluetooth. I've used this for building sumobots with/for cubs too. It's able to take a bit of bashing.

  • For each strip, the positive "rail" was connected to a different pin directly on the microcontroller - not necessarily the best solution, but works quite well for this controller.

  • Code for this was really simple/trivial - simple strobing of the strips. The real system would be more complex. In particular this is the sort of code in pastebin

    However, the "real" garment would use something like this iotoy library for control - to allow it to be controlled by bluetooth and also by an IOT stack.

The web app is a simple client side affair only, and uses a small simple DSL for specifying behaviours. This is then transformed into a JSON data structure for evaluation. This uses jquery, bootstrap, and Paul's awesome little web controllable light up dress. You can see this prototype on my website.

Again, bear in mind that this is a very simple thing, and the result of a 1 - 1.5 day hack by a work placement trainee - treat it nicely :-) The fact it generates a JSON data structure internally which could be uploaded/shared is as much the point as the fact it has 3 micro-tutorials around sequencing, control and selection.

The bracelet was created as follows:

  • Thermoplastic was used at the wristband body - about 5-10g. This is plastic that melts in hot water (above 60 degrees), and becomes very malleable.

  • A number of LEDs and and LDR

    • The LEDs connected to the 3 digital pins, A0 and A1, with A2 connected between an LDR and 10K resistor.
  • A DF Robot Beetle - which is a tiny (and cheap ~£4.50) Arduino Leonaro clone - though it's the size of a 10p piece, and only has (easy) access to 6 pins.

  • This was MUCH more fiddly than expected, and there's lots of ways of avoiding that issue. In the end the bracelet was electricly sound, though having access to a soldering iron (or rather a place where soldering could take place) would've been handy. We remarked several times that building the bracelet would've been easier at home multiple times - which I think is a positive statement really.

  • Again the cost part was very simple, and due to time constraints no behaviour of the LDR was implemented. On the upside, it does show how simple these things can be - - again howvever, if the microcontroller was tweaked, you could use bluetooth and use something like the iotoy library above - allowing really rich interaction with other devices.

In fact we had a fair amount of this working before the meet the teenagers session. As a result we had concrete things to talk about with the teenagers, who warmed up when we point out the website and devices were the result of just a few hours work.

The feedback we had was really useful and great. This also meant that while physical and tech building continued on the second day, more time could be spent on the business case and audience benefit than might have otherwise - though never as much as you'd like.

Feedback we had was:

  • Make it chunky!
  • Can you make it velcro-able - so we can attach it to bags, clothing etc as well. ** It also made it more possible to add to things like belt buckles, jackets, hats etc.
  • Can you have these devices controllable / communicating?
  • Can you make the web app an Android/iOS app?
  • Can you add in more sensors?
  • Can it be repurposed?
  • Call the project DressCode - this is one of those things that is a moment of genius, and so obvious and so appropriate in hindsight.

This instantly solved a problem we had in terms of keeping wristband small and elegant - chunky makes everything alot simpler. Velcro was a good idea, but a but late in our build studio to start over. The idea of controlling and communicating is right up the angle we wanted to pursue (IOT type activities using the iotoy library) but didn't have time for in a 1 - 1.5 day hack.

The idea of having a downloadable app was one that we hadn't considered, but fits right in with the system - after all this would be able to directly interact with a bluetooth wristband, and the communications stack is already written. Having more sensors was obvious, and repurposing made sense if we switched to something using velcro.

It was a really useful session as you can imagine.

The Pitch :: Dress Code

So we carried though to the pitch - DressCode - Fashion of the Tech Generation. (After all, a generation now will be learning how to code behaviours of some kind - so this is a fun application of the skills they'll be learning)

We said in the creative pitch what we'd allow you to do, and said we were allowing you to do just that - as you can see from what our core aspects were vs our prototypes.

Some key aspects of making this work would be the development of kit forms for tech bands which could then be made and sold by 3rd parties and partner - assuming they meet a certain spec.

The ideas behind the pitch included self-expression - the ability to look like the group or different from the group - the ability to share behaviours, to be part of something larger for the coding to be a means of creating behaviours for something but also that it leads naturally into coding for other devices - such as indicator bands or gloves for cyclists, shoes for runners, bottom up fund raising as happens with loom bands, and as a starting project for learning about coding - with a strong/fun inspiration piece involving TV - from headlining glastonbury through to a light up suit for Lenny Henry for comic relief - where each red nose is a seperate pixel to be controlled.

We described the user journey from the TV to the webapp to the techband and back to events and the TV show.

Pitching doesn't come naturally to me - the more outgoing you are in such situations the more likely your idea gains currency with others. Emily led our pitch and I though did a sterling job.

Competition however was very fierce. If our idea doesn't go through, it won't be because it's a bad pitch or a bad idea, it'll just because a different pitch is thought to be stronger/more appropriate for various reasons.


Hindsight is great. It's the stuff you think of after the time you needed it. In particular, one thing we were ask to do - and I think we kinda addressed it - at the build studio was to deal with the link between the techbands and the online web app and TV show. The way we dealt with it there was to decide to make available the same DSL to both wristbands (or blinkenbands as I nicknamed the code) and garments. ie to allow the same behaviour online or on a garment to control a blinkenband and so on.

That's pretty good, but there was a better, simpler solution staring us in the face all along :

  • The felt strips we sewed LEDs onto then wired up with conductive thread, were pretty simple to make. Even sewing in the Beetle would've been pretty simple.

  • Putting velcro onto those would've been simple - meaning each piece of felt could be a blinkenband. Also each blinkenband could be attached inside a garment (as each strip was), allowing at once both more complex behaviours but also a much cleaer link between the wristbands and the garments.

  • Also, attaching bands inside a pre-existing garment also drastically reduced the risk element for teenagers in building a garment - if it didn't look good, you still had wristbands. If it DID work, you gain more kudos. Furthermore, if you did this there's an incentive to make more than one wristband with two side effects - firstly it encourages more experimentation and play - the best way to learn but also leads to people potentially selling them to each other, secondly it encourages people to make more than one - since once they've done one, if they do more they could make an outfit that's all their own.

  • Also, if you did this, you have an activity that while a little pricey (about £10 each all in) it IS the sort of activity a Guides group would do - especially at camp (assuming a pre-programmed microcontroller ) in part because it's a group that tend to do more crafts type activities and would actually find the light useful in this situation. While people have ... "isn't that rather 19th century" ... views of things like Guides/Scouts, they do both cover the target demographic, and out of the two, it seems more likely to get Guides happily making felt/fabric programmable blinkenbands than Scouts - based on who the two sets attract.

    For me, it's this final thought that made me think that this would definitely be a good starting point - since it seems a realistic way of connecting with the demographic. (Ironically - getting leaders on board in groups would perhaps be harder work!)

Closing thoughts

All in all, an interesting and useful couple of days, leaving me with some clear ideas of how to take things forward - with or without support from connected studio - which I think makes this a double win. Obviously getting 6-8 weeks to work on this for a pilot would be preferable to trying to cram it into my own time, but to me the Build Studio definitely proved the concept.

As mentioned an actual real world example of this would have to:

  • Identify a realistic event
  • Make the audience benefit clearer, figure out a marketing strategy
  • Build a better/more concrete garment - I started unpicking my jacket, but didn't have time to pixelise it...
  • Build a better web app - close the loop to controlling the garment, linking to users
  • A downloadable app - which links to the online account for spreading behaviours to a device.
  • Better tutorials, and kits for building tech bands.

All in all a great and productive couple of days.

Next up, building robots for the BBC academy to teach basics of coding to BBC Staff (though I suspect they'd like tech bands too :-), but that's another day.

Later edit

(27th August)

Well, this is a later edit, and a shame to mention this, but Dresscode did not make it through the Connected Studio to Pilot. That's the nature of competitive pitching though, which is both sad, and awesome because it means a better idea did go through.

Regarding Dresscode itself, the Connected Studio team also said the following:

With regards to continuing your work on this independently, the idea is your IP and as it did not get taken to pilot the BBC doesn't retain any IP on Dress Code. The only caveat is that the idea cannot be pitched at another Connected Studio event. However, the Connected Studio modus operandi does not replace BBC commissioning, so feel free to progress the idea this way. We must add that if choosing the BBC commissioning route, it's up to you to talk to your line manager about this before any steps are taken.

So while Dresscode as a Connected Studio thing is no more, it could be something I could do independently later. We'll see.

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