Loser: Not Ready To Wear

Philips trumpets a power-sucking LED display as the next big thing in textiles

5 min read
Loser: Not Ready To Wear
Illustration: Jason Lee

nothing but net

Illustration: Jason Lee

Behold Lumalive, a piece of flexible material studded with 100 inorganic light-emitting diodes and some drive ­electronics. It’s barely big enough to cover a ­dinner plate, but it can light up kind of like your computer ­monitor, displaying messages, fuzzy pictures, and assorted ­psychedelic art. It is the brainchild of the Philips Photonics Textiles research group, in Eindhoven, the Netherlands.

Your feelings about Lumalive may well be determined by how you feel about flashy publicity gimmicks that compete for your attention as you stroll across a convention show floor. Don’t think there are enough of them? You’re gonna love Lumalive!

The Philips executives who have plucked what they call “photonic textiles” from the Eindhoven lab’s rich portfolio of ambient technology research projects seem to believe that Lumalive can generate a Tronâ''like freak show more compelling than the usual trinket-­distributing lovelies and Vegas-style miniature floor shows. The pitch: let your corporate logo dance on your chest and watch the business cards fly into the fishbowl.

What Philips calls a photonic textile is actually a removable ­display that is water-resistant but not washable. It fits into an opening in the garment or ­upholstery and is then covered with a thin fabric through which the light from the LEDs diffuses. The malleable display is tethered to a case—a bit larger than a deck of cards—that houses the controller and a rechargeable lithium-ion ­battery, which lasts 4 hours.

Martijn Krans, technology manager of the Philips Photonics Textiles research group, explained in an interview that the display consists of 100 tiny red, green, and blue LEDs arrayed in a flexible wire mesh. By applying current along the rows and columns of the mesh, the controller can address individual LEDs located at the intersections as pixels and can refresh them at a rate fast enough to display dynamic images: scrolling messages or moving patterns.

Best of all, Krans says, you can program the display using a cellphone. “The interactivity of the system comes from the mobile phone, which can also be linked to the controller,” he says. Although he would not give any details, he says that the displays can have their own phone ­numbers to which users can send text messages and animations.

Leaving aside the absurdity of paying for your shirt or couch to have its own phone number, such wireless interactivity raises the specter of mischief—by which, of course, we mean outright hilarity. What self-respecting geek could avoid giving in to the temptation to do a little “shirt hacking”? A new-age dandy at a party sporting a swirling light display would be an irresistible target for a little impromptu coding—that is, to replace the swirling lights with the message “I am a dork.”

So how secure is Lumalive? How exactly would you program the display? Krans declines to elaborate on the technology’s specifics, which he says have been disclosed only in confidential internal documents and patent applications filed in the United States and Europe. He also declines to say how many ­researchers have been involved in the project or how much Philips has invested in the technology’s development.

He is, however, happy to talk about Lumalive’s recent ­coming-out party in Berlin at the IFA consumer electronics show. During the September event, the company had 10 hosts walking around in the Philips hall wearing Lumalive vests. It “had this dynamic magical effect,” Krans recalls. “There was so much enthusiasm, so many overwhelming reactions from the audience, that we really think this has lots of appeal.”

Meanwhile, viewers surfing the YouTube Web site have gotten an eyeful of future applications for the technology. In one video clip, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s0tlmop7i5I, Krans talks wistfully of the tactile pleasures of the Lumalive display. “It’s a soft technology,” he says, while a girl snuggles a shimmering cushion in the background, “and it allows to be squeezed.”

Earlier in the clip, the girl heaves a puffy backpack over her shoulders, as a Lumalive patch on the bag flashes color images: a sailboat, a smiley face, arrows, and the like. The bag also scrolls a message: “How are you?”

“We know that kids love to personalize their belongings,” Krans explains. “They download ring tones, they download wallpaper to their mobile phones. But they also write the name of their favorite bands on their soft accessories—for instance, their backpacks. What we have developed is a backpack that allows for these expressions by integrating, in a very natural way, a display.”



Philips struts its Lumalive stuff at the IFA consumer electronics show in Berlin.

Not everyone thinks Philips executives are good sources of wisdom on the vagaries of teenage fashion. “Am I the only one laughing when middle-aged marketing execs claim that they know what the next big thing for teens is?” asks Summer Hogan, fashion ­blogger and self-­proclaimed Purveyor of Style, in an e-mail interview. “Teens respond to—and buy—things that are cool.” She ticked off possible sources of teen fashion trends: ”What is their favorite band wearing? What did they see on MySpace? What did the company that makes the lightbulbs that mom buys say they should like? One of these things is not like the others.”

Ingrid Johnson, professor of textile development and marketing at the Fashion Institute of Technology, in New York City, says Lumalive could enhance the designer labels people like to show off as a way of indicating their social and economic status—consider a handbag that flashes the Louis Vuitton logo. But Lumalive likely won’t be a long-lived style element that goes in and out of fashion.

“There will be a novelty factor, but it will eventually run its course,” Johnson says. “People are not going to want it after a while. They’ll be asking themselves, ‘Do I want to become a human billboard?’ The great majority of us probably would not be attracted to it.”

But Diana Marculescu, ­associate professor of ­electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, sees a bright side, so to speak. For several years, she has been working on sensor arrays embedded in fabric that could be applied like wallpaper. If Lumalive works as advertised and is cost-effective—Philips won’t say what the fabric and electronics are likely to cost—its woven-fabric substrate solves the ­flexibility problem that has stumped Marculescu’s group.

But power consumption is a concern for her, too, and here Lumalive’s 4-hour battery life doesn’t live up to her needs or, she suspects, the needs of early Lumalive adopters who might be looking for their wearable ­electronics to do more than just momentarily intrigue passersby.

“The more flexibility you put in, the more power you must burn,” Marculescu says. “Right now their battery lifetime is so limited, I assume it’s going to limit even more the applicability to anything [besides advertising]. That’s going to make it less appealing to the wearable market.”

Although Lumalive might be half-baked, there’s definitely one potential use for it, as a Slashdot contributor pointed out: “This will revolutionize the ’I’m With Stupid’ T-shirt industry—now the arrow can always point in the right direction.” Too bad that particular T-shirt won’t be seen at the Philips booth during the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this month. Four hours’ worth of battery life would be more than enough time to get the message across.

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