Getting Started with Adafruit FLORA: Making Wearables with an Arduino-Compatible Electronics Platform

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This book introduces readers to building wearable electronics projects using Adafruit's tiny FLORA board: at 4.4 grams, and only 1.75 inches in diameter, and featuring Arduino compatibility, it's the most beginner-friendly way to create wearable projects. This book shows you how to plan your wearable circuits, sew with electronics, and write programs that run on the FLORA to control the electronics. The FLORA family includes an assortment of sensors, as well as RGB LEDs that let you add lighting to your wearable projects.

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1. What You’ll Need

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The great thing about the FLORA platform, and wearable electronics in general, is how accessible it is to all types of people. Basic projects require very little knowledge about electronics and only a few inexpensive tools. For more complex projects, you will need more specialized tools and a few basic skills.

The following tools are used throughout this book and your FLORA projects. Making is more fun with good quality tools, so invest a little extra when you can.

Needles (Figure 1-1) carry your thread (conductive or otherwise) through fabric by piercing it with the sharp tip, while the hole at the other end holds the thread. When you push/pull a needle through, the thread comes with it, making a stitch.

Needles come in different sizes and sharpness, based on their use: blunt big-eyed ones for tapestry and cross-stitch, extra sharps for embroidery, and multipurpose in between. You can purchase a needle assortment for building wearable electronics; just make sure that the eye (the fattest part) of the needle you choose fits easily through the holes on the components of your circuit. See Chapter 4 for a primer on stitching.

 

2. Getting the Software

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The brains of the FLORA platform are controlled by custom code that you upload to the board over USB (Figure 2-1). In order to get this code onto the board, you will need to use a custom-made version of the Arduino integrated development environment (IDE) that comes preloaded with FLORA drivers, libraries, and code examples. The Arduino IDE allows you to write, edit, and upload code to your FLORA board with a simple click of a button. Best of all, the Arduino IDE is free to download. The customized version for FLORA is available for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux.

For links to download the special FLORA IDE, head over to http://learn.adafruit.com/getting-started-with-flora/download-software. Click the button for the appropriate operating system, and follow the detailed instructions on how to install the software on your computer.

Codebender is an easy way to get up and running with FLORA. Instead of downloading the FLORA IDE, you just need to install a Chrome or Firefox extension and driver, open the Codebender IDE in your browser, and you can program your FLORA without any further configuration. Codebender includes hundreds of libraries from the Arduino community, and if you need one that isn’t included, you can install your own.

 

3. Hardware

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The FLORA main board is like a tiny computer (see Figure 3-1). Its “brain” (a microcontroller) runs a small program, or set of instructions looking for information from sensors and controlling devices connected to it based on the instructions in the program. FLORA is Arduino-compatible and designed specifically for wearable electronics projects. It’s round, so it won’t snag on or poke through fabric; it’s small, slim, and easy to sew because of its large pads in a convenient arrangement. It’s built around the Atmega32u4 chip, located at the very center of the board. FLORA can communicate with your computer over a USB cable, which also supplies electricity to the board when its connected. You can put new programs on it with the Adafruit Arduino IDE, discussed in Chapter 2.

FLORA’s processor, the Atmega32u4, is the same chip inside the Arduino Micro, Arduino Leonardo, and Teensy platforms, but it runs at 8 MHz, allowing it to be powered with as little as 3 volts (and up to 16V). This opens up a wide variety of battery options including LiIon/LiPoly, LiFE, alkaline, or rechargeable NiMH/NiCad batteries of any size—just plug them in via FLORA’s JST port. FLORA’s 2-amp FET (field-effect transistor, a component used to control a large amount of electrical current) makes it safe and efficient to toggle battery power, even with a power-hungry circuit. The 3.3V 100mA voltage regulator keeps the chip powered and electrically isolated from the electricity-slurping LED pixels that attach to it. The USB fuse protects your computer by killing the power if you try to draw too much current over USB. When properly powered, FLORA can drive 500 NeoPixels at 30 frames per second.

 

4. Making Stitches

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Not all wearables use conductive textiles, but those that do require some special knowledge! This chapter covers the basics and quirks of stitching with conductive thread.

You’ll need the entire thread to pass through the eye of the sewing needle to stitch with it effectively, which can be tricky with springy steel thread. It’s OK to moisten it with some saliva to help the strands to stick together! Make sure you have adequate lighting to see the tiny needle eye, especially if your vision is less than stellar. Hold the needle up in front of a light-colored and well-lit surface so you can see through the eye. Hold the end of the thread with two fingers on your other hand and guide it through the eye (Figure 4-1). If you can’t get it after the first few tries, snip the mangled end of the thread and start fresh. Once threaded, pull the tail through the eye a few inches to help prevent it from coming unthreaded as you sew, but keep it shorter than the main “working” thread.

An embroidery hoop makes any hand-stitched conductive thread project easier! It keeps your fabric flat and taut so your circuit ends up free of bunching. You can pick one up at your local craft store or online, and they come in many sizes and shapes. Place the solid inner ring on your work surface, then lay your fabric over it. Place the outer adjustable ring over the inner ring, sandwiching the fabric like the head of a drum (Figure 4-2). Tighten the adjusting screw, meanwhile pulling the fabric taut in the hoop (Figure 4-3). Both should be very tight, or you’ll end up readjusting it more times than necessary during stitching. Figure 4-4 shows the fabric ready to be stitched.

 

5. Your First FLORA Project

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Your first FLORA project will be very simple: a single NeoPixel lights up an embroidered angler fish on a pair of shorts. The main board is stitched on the front of the design, in the belly of the fish. A snap is used on the fin as a digital switch, triggering a color change in the pixel in the angler’s lure. The circuit’s battery is tucked into the shorts’ front pocket. Gather the following materials and tools:

FLORA main board

1 FLORA RGB NeoPixel

3xAAA battery pack or 150 mAh LiPoly battery

2-ply conductive thread

A single sew-on snap

Standard nonconductive thread

Embroidery floss in your choice of colors

Dark blue shorts

Small piece of matching fabric

Scissors

Embroidery hoop

Clear nail polish or Fray Check liquid seam sealant

Embroidery marker or tailor’s chalk

Figure 5-1 shows the circuit diagram for the color-changing angler circuit. FLORA’s D6 is the data bus for the NeoPixel: connect it to the inward-facing arrow on the NeoPixel. FLORA’s VBATT and GND connect to + and – on the pixel, all stitched with conductive thread. A snap is used as a switch on the fish’s fabric fin—one half is connected to GND and stitched to the body of the fish, and the other to TX (aka D1 or any digital pin) and sewn to the back of the fin so you can snap and unsnap it at will. You can download and print the fish pattern on transfer paper or just use it as a reference for your own embroidered design.

 

6. Intermediate Project: Sparkle Skirt

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Make clothing that lights up when you move! This is a sewing (no soldering) FLORA project using 12 color-changing NeoPixels and the FLORA accelerometer/compass module. Spikes in the sensor readings cause the pixels to flash and sparkle. The pixels are sewn to the skirt’s lining and are diffused by the outer layer of fabric, whether it be a sheer overlay or a cutout lace design (Figure 6-1).

If a skirt doesn’t appeal to you, use this circuit and code on a hat, a belt buckle, or even a blinky dog collar. You’ll need these materials (most are shown in Figure 6-2):

FLORA main board

FLORA accelerometer/compass module

12 FLORA RGB NeoPixels

150 mAh LiPoly battery or 3xAAA battery pack

Conductive thread

Standard thread

Lined skirt with a sheer overlay or cutout top layer

Scissors

Needle

Multimeter

Embroidery hoop

Clear nail polish or Fray Check

Water-soluble embroidery marker

Select a skirt and start planning where your pixels will go. Figure 6-3 shows how you can connect all the parts of this circuit.

 

7. Advanced Project: FLORA NeoGeo Watch

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Make your own LED timepiece (Figure 7-1)! Use FLORA and the FLORA GPS module to tell time with a ring of pixels. A leather cuff holds the circuit and hides the battery. The watch is chunky, but it still looks and feels great on tiny wrists!

The circuit sandwich becomes the face of the watch, and you’ll use a tactile switch to make a mode selector. The watch has timekeeping (one LED for hours and one for minutes), GPS navigation (customize your waypoint in the Arduino sketch that you’ll see later in this chapter), and compass modes.

For this project you will need:

FLORA main board

NeoPixel ring

FLORA Wearable Ultimate GPS module

FLORA accelerometer/compass sensor

Tactile switch, such as Adafruit part # 1119

Tiny LiPoly battery with charger, such as Adafruit part #1317 with Adafruit part #1304

Leather watch cuff; we got ours from LabyrinthLeather

Small scrap of fabric

E6000 craft adhesive

Binder clips

Thin-gauge stranded wire

 

8. Troubleshooting

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The great thing about microcontroller boards like FLORA is that they can be used with a variety of computers and operating systems. However, this complexity can cause issues while you set up and work with your FLORA.

This chapter covers the most common issues and how to fix them, including connectivity, Arduino software, error messages, and common soft circuit issues. And if we don’t solve your problem here, we’ll point you to some further resources for getting help.

First it’s important that your computer and FLORA can communicate with each other effectively. Many variables are at play here! A few common issues:

FLORA requires using a customized version of the Arduino software (see Chapter 2), or the web-based IDE Codebender. The regular Arduino IDE will not work for programming FLORA without modification.

FLORA sometimes has issues with USB 3.0 ports or communicating through USB hubs. Try plugging FLORA into a different USB port on your computer, or a different hub.

 

9. More Resources

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In addition to the projects published in this book, Adafruit’s tutorial site hosts dozens of FLORA projects, all with step-by-step instructions, videos, and source code to get you started. The Adafruit Learning System is updated frequently with beginner, intermediate, and advanced wearable projects.

Each week, Becky discusses materials and tools and answers viewer questions in her 30-minute live show on YouTube. Catch it live or watch the recording, and ask your own questions in the comments.

If you’ve got a question about or problem with your own project, post a message in the Adafruit forums and dedicated engineering support staff will walk you through troubleshooting your project until it works.

Syuzi Pakhchyan’s Fashioning Tech site is full of inspiration for your own wearable projects as well as longer articles about wearable tech and fashion.

Hannah Perner-Wilson’s site “aims to be a comprehensible, accessible and maintainable reference resource, as well as a basis for further exploration and contribution.” It has a plethora of textile tutorials, soft sensor ideas, and materials exploration data.

 

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