As large and as adamant as the Maker movement may be, its homebrew-tech philosophy is still relatively inaccessible to most people. What the heck can you do with a Raspberry Pi if you don’t know how to solder or code? Nothing. There’s a great divide between things built by regular folks and things built by makers—a divide that’s not going to simply disappear unless technology becomes easier to understand.
SensorTape (PDF), by Artem Dementyev, Cindy Hsin-Liu Kao, and Joe Paradiso from MIT Media Lab’s Responsive Environments group, is an attempt to bridge this gap. It’s essentially a roll of circuits that you can cut, reattach, and affix to various surfaces. And with no extra code required, it’s a completely self-aware sensor network, able to feel itself bend and see light pass by.
"For me, it was interesting to make this kind of complicated sensing network into something like a craft material that’s easy to use and manipulate, so anyone can a manipulate a complicated network as simply as tape," Dementyev says. "It’s for artists and designers, not just engineers."
The magic making SensorTape possible isn’t all that hard to understand. It’s just a repeating pattern of electronics printed on a flexible film—something akin to lining up a bunch of iPhones end-to-end on a table. The secret is that each node knows how to talk to its neighbor, and so in whispering along the chain, the nodes can assemble all of their information into an accurate, real-time 3-D model of their own assumed shape. The lab has placed SensorTape on the back of a shirt to track the position of someone’s spine, but it’s a system so accurate that Dementyev believes it could be used for Hollywood-level motion capture, too. Rather than using suits tracked by positional balls, the technology inside SensorTape could pin on someone's limbs and self-track.
Of course, it's not built as much for one use case as it is for any use case. SensorTape wrapped around your door frame might watch as you walk through and turn on your lights for you. SensorTape applied to your couch might track your posture and be able to pause your DVR when you slouch. It's the sort of open, do-anything-sensor philosophy reminiscent of Twine, but built into the domestic-friendly UX of good old tape.
That UX includes clear black lines that indicate where it’s safe to cut and break the circuits. Using normal scissors, you can cut in a straight line or at a diagonal angle, which is important, as the diagonal edges allow you to reassemble the film into 2-D shapes like you would a picture frame. (Splicing these bits of film requires a fancy type of conductive 3M tape, or you can re-solder the connections manually.)
So who is the market? Dementyev sees early parallels to people who buy self-affixing LED light strips. They’re not just for techies anymore—LED strips could be used by anyone who wants to fix up his kitchen under-cabinet lighting. "But in the future, you could just buy this kind of fabric or sheet and do whatever you want to it," he says. "You can buy the computer by the meter. Maybe each unit will be its own computer ... so the longer it is, the more powerful it is." It's a vision reminiscent of Google's Project Jacquard, which turns textiles into giant touch screens, though Jacquard is more positioned as an accessory to something like your smartphone, while in this context, SensorTape would be self-sufficient. SensorTape swatches would be your smartphone.
Dementyev wouldn’t reveal how much the prototype of SensorTape cost to produce, but importantly, it’s not just some lab-made prototype. This tape came off a real assembly line in China, meaning it can feasibly be mass produced today. And if it were, he imagines it costing $100 to $200 per meter.
That’s still pretty expensive, of course, and far from the dream of walking into a Home Depot and picking up a roll for the same $10ish price of a nice roll of duct tape. But Dementyev isn’t concerned with driving the price down. He’d rather bring the capabilities up. So for his new research, he’s considering how the technology inside SensorTape might scale, not just in a line, but in a continuous plane. And so sewing your own smart garment would be as simple as cutting some theoretical SensorCloth and piecing it together.