Learning About Wearable Engineering While Trying To Un-Taboo A Topic



When you build a machine you can usually count on having precise dimensions for an organized and orderly set of parts, one fitting into the next exactly as you have designed them. You can count on cause and effect — when the user pushes a button or flips a switch a specific behavior will take place. But the She Bon project shows that adding the human body to the mix quickly turns an easy design into a challenging one.

During her Hackaday Superconference talk Sarah Petkus discusses her latest project that uses wearable technology to sense and react to her own body. She Bon is reminiscent of the French for “so good” and is a project whose aim transcends the technical challenges. Sarah uses engineering as a way to facilitate adults having healthy dialogs with one another about sex.

Depending on your profession, this discussion is likely not appropriate for work — it’s not sexual, but it’s fundamentally about sex — so don’t click through the video without thinking twice. But we respect Sarah’s courage for leading a project that wants to make sure there actually are places where it is possible to have these conversations and a way to get them started.

How Do You Begin an Intelligent Conversation?

Mixing an engineering challenge with a somewhat taboo topic works surprisingly well, as you can see in the video below. It’s a technical talk about sensing body temperature, heart rate, galvanic response, blush response, facial expression, and muscle tension. But it’s also a story of her attempt at creating a Suit of Amour, her tongue-in-cheek “Sexual Gundam”. Don’t be fooled, this is no gimmick. The discussions quickly leads to the real life challenges facing prosthetics designers and those developing wearable products. There’s a ton to be learned here.

Join me below for more on the hardware covered in Sarah’s talk. This out-of-the-ordinary hardware creation adventure made it a great entry in the 2018 Hackaday Prize and a particularly delightful talk at the 2018 Hackaday Superconference. We’re once again on the hunt for hardware creators to present at the 2019 Hackaday Superconference — and we can’t do it without you. Submit a talk proposal, or just grab a ticket and join us in Pasadena this November. Bonus points for those who have also entered their projects in the 2019 Hackaday Prize. Okay, now onto the hardware talk.

Hardware to Sense and React to Sensuality

The level of aesthetic Sarah is able to achieve in her prototype hardware is simply amazing. Throughout the talk she shows examples of her electronics and their enclosures, often through several iterations, and they’re both functional and beautiful to look at. If you learn nothing else from this talk you should leave with an appreciation for her habit of choosing an aesthetic at the beginning of the design so that it may evolve to perfection during hardware development.

Case-in-point is the backpack which serves as the brain for She Bon. It’s heat-shaped with a pixillated motif that provides plenty of places for Molex connectors to interface RJ45 jacks. From there, patch cables make a simple link with sensor and actuator modules elsewhere on the body. Sarah discusses three of those satellite units (which she calls augments), how they were conceived, designed, and the state of the prototypes.

Her Beat Box augment links heartbeat to a speaker that can playback audio. It’s a feedback loop for arousal — one of the “extra credit” goals she set for the project. The Propeller Pasties sense breast arousal with IR distance sensors and use propellers that spin as an external indicator. Spinning planetary gears were inspired by a toy and make granular speed control much easier. For control she has the wrist-mounted Pop Girl user interface — a nod to Fallout’s Pip Boy — that uses a Raspberry Pi and touchscreen inside a 3D printed enclosure. The Hot Spot augment is a temperature triggered buttocks winch that raises a particularly difficult challenge: how do you mount things to a living body and how do you ensure you don’t injure yourself in the process?

Sarah is the perfect speaker for this topic. She’s fun, she’s artsy, she’s scientific, she’s matter of fact with a flair of double entendre, and she has the technical chops to do the engineering. She makes you feel like you’re on the team and normalizes the conversation so anyone into tech feels both comfortable with the discussion and excited to see how the technical hurdles have been approached. In short, this talk shows the manifestation of her goal has already begun: for adults to have a healthy dialog about sex.

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