Debra credits micro:bit with merging two of her disparate passions, LED wearables and coding education, into her new tech wearable business, BrightWearables.com. For many years, she had enjoyed volunteering to introduce elementary school children to introductory coding concepts. Her formerly distinct hobby/obsession of integrating LEDs into clothing and accessories kept her active in the Maker community. Some of her Maker and instructional activities are documented on her blog at GeekMomProjects.com.
Debra’s volunteer work introduced her to the micro:bit almost four years ago while she was researching educational physical computing platforms. After evaluating the versatile, powerful, but easy to code board, she was hooked. She had planned to use it in coding lessons, but feels it was inevitable that she would eventually find a way to incorporate it into her LED projects.
Intrigued by the potential synergy of tech education and LED wearables, Debra set out to create a fashion accessory that is easily programmed to change LED colours and patterns but also durable enough to withstand the stresses of being worn.
Two years, dozens of prototypes and one US patent filing later, she launched her new product line, Bright Wearables, in December of 2019. The first product offering is a modular system consisting of different designs of illuminated bags and backpacks (Bright Bags) designed to enclose and display a micro:bit accessory board (Bright Board) showcasing a ring of addressable RGB LEDs. Debra explained her goals in bringing programmable fashion accessories to market this way, “While Bright Wearables bags are a fun and attractive fashion accessory for anyone, my hope is that the Bright Wearables line will attract students who might not be engaged by more traditional physical computing environments, such as electronics kits and robotics, to coding.”
Debra describes her journey of developing a new micro:bit-based product as both challenging and fascinating. Without a roadmap for the process, she relied on micro:bit’s extensive educational ecosystem and hardware accessory market to provide her with direction along the way.
Developing the Bright Board PCB
Debra had electronics experience but had never designed a PCB, so she initially hired a consultant to turn her hand-soldered prototype into a manufacturable design. The Bright Board design had to satisfy several constraints. It required a slim profile, a connector to position the micro:bit with its LED grid centered inside a ring of RGB LEDs, and a system of integrated mechanical fasteners to attach the board to the Bright Bags. As with any wearable, all electrical connections needed to be sturdy and safe, and the high current draw of RGB LEDs made heat dissipation essential.
The slow turnaround with the consultant became frustrating, so Debra began to learn Eagle CAD herself. It was daunting, and she describes herself as “terrified” to submit her first order to a PCB manufacturer. She still remembers the reassurance she felt when an experienced maker informed her that even his PCB orders sometimes turned out useful only as “coasters.” That encouragement, plus the low cost of ordering custom PCBs helped her to gain confidence in the process, experiment with design variations in different prototypes, and learn through a process of trial and error.
When Debra felt her prototype was ready for production, she hired an electrical engineer through Upwork to perform a design review and help her navigate the unfamiliar PCBA process. The engineer suggested several useful modifications and provided a second set of eyes at a critical step. She extols the benefits of that decision as follows, “Sending a product to be manufactured is nerve-wracking, and it is crucial to do whatever you can to reduce the possibility of production errors.”
She found the most difficult design decision for the Bright Board PCB to be selecting the connector to attach the micro:bit. The standard 80-pin through-hole edge connector is a relatively expensive component and its through-hole mounting mechanism adds cost to the PCB assembly process. Debra experimented with other connection methods including pressure-based spring connectors (not robust enough) and screw connectors (too inconvenient for the end-user) before deciding that the sturdiness and benefit of allowing the end-user to easily pop the micro:bit in and out of the Bright Board made it worth the extra cost. Her hope is that Bright Wearables owners will find it handy carry a micro:bit with them, which they be able to pop out of the Bright Board to use in projects anywhere they go, and then snap it back in place to illuminate their Bright Bag when finished.
Coding a MakeCode Bright Board Extension
When she started Bright Wearables, Debra felt far more comfortable working with software than hardware. She quickly realized that micro:bit’s coding website provided an existing, easy-to-use programming interface for the Bright Board, which would save her a great deal of time and effort. When writing the Bright Board library extension for MakeCode, she was delighted to discover that the development environment was clearly and extensively documented and well designed for extensibility. As Debra says, “It is straightforward for anyone, not just professional developers to access and use the MakeCode extension developer tools. The integration of the MakeCode source and contributed extensions on GitHub gave me numerous practical examples for models.”
MakeCode has a number of useful tools and support channels for extension developers, including clear and extensive tutorials on designing code blocks, a MakeCode “playground” website in which to test them, and a forum for discussions and feedback on the micro:bit Slack channel. Debra feels that writing the Bright Board MakeCode extension was the only part of the development process for which she had some sort of roadmap, and she is grateful to the talented MakeCode creators and developers who provided it. She describes herself as having been “absolutely thrilled” to learn that her extension was officially approved and that it was searchable within the official MakeCode extensions list.
The Path Ahead
In starting Bright Wearables, Debra learned that the process of developing a wearable tech product extends far beyond just electronics and software. She had not anticipated the amount of research required simply to navigate United States business, trademark, and patent laws, and she claims that the story of sourcing Bright Bag production from Chinese manufacturers could fill its own lengthy article. In researching the market for educational wearables, Debra solicited feedback from informal focus groups of friends, their friends, and their friends’ friends. When setting up sales, she found that, despite her experience administrating her WordPress blog, building a WordPress-based shopping site is another animal entirely.
Debra opened sales on her website at the very end of 2019 and discovered that introducing the public to a novel product niche requires clear, concise, and effective explanation. While micro:bit is well known in the UK, it is much less familiar to the United States. According to Debra, the feedback from those who see the bags in person has been very good, but she is still working on the best way to make the concept of “codable wearables” clear online, and would like to add more documentation to the website.
As Bright Wearables enters its newest phase, Debra finds herself, once again, without a roadmap. There will undoubtedly be many twists and turns in the expedition to come, but she has enjoyed the adventure so far, and feels optimistic about the journey ahead.