As a designer who is mostly interested in illuminating us all by finding new ways to use lighting in costumes, bioluminescent sea creatures are naturally a very big influence on my work. So, when Andre Mistier, frontman of electro-rock band The Adversary, asked me to design him an illuminated stage look with an aquatic theme, I was very excited. I wanted to push myself to use some new techniques and materials, so I brought on an awesome collaborator, Ashley Newton (Technorainbows) of Sustainable Magic, to help design the lighting system for the outfit. I had originally planned to use primarily el wire and a few LEDs, but Ashley suggested that I could get a similar but more interesting effect by using large diameter, side-light fiber optics instead. It was a brilliant idea. The fiber optics really took this design to a new level and allowed me to discover a material that I will certainly be using a lot more in the future.
Side-light/side-glow fiber optics are a fairly new type of fiber optic strand that emit a glow along their entire length when a light is shone into one, or both, ends. They look a bit like el wire, but they can take on any color based on the light you are shining into them, and they don’t have the shorting issues and soldering annoyances that make el wire tricky to work with. The final outfit I created was quite a complex undertaking and consisted of three pieces:
A Headpiece: which incorporates laser cut leather, el wire, side light fiber optics, individually addressable RGB LEDs (WS2812), an Arduino microcontroller, a lithium polymer battery, an on-off switch, and a component to hold the fiber optics in place, which Ashley designed and 3D printed on a Makerbot in Ninjaflex TPE flexible filament -- a filament with properties similar to rubber.
A Chest Harness: made primarily of laser cut leather, 3D printed chest and shoulder shells which I designed and printed in two materials on the Objet printers at Instructables, and inner components designed by Ashley and 3D printed in Ninjaflex on the Makerbot, as well as an Arduino microcontroller, an on-off switch, a battery, individually addressable RGB LEDs, and 6mm diameter side light fiber optics.
A Pair of Pants: which I embellished with leather and six 3D printed shells which diffuse individually addressable LEDs controlled by a microcontroller and powered by another lithium battery.
This project was an adventure. I ended up completing it on the playa under very trying conditions with an immense amount of help from my amazing boyfriend Bruce Lindsay. So, some of what I learned in this process what not to do, and how to pull together something incredible in a harsh environment, with limited sleep and a lot of dust.
*Photos in this step by Hep Svadja, heptic.net
A lot of time and patience, an awesome collaborator who knows about fiber optics and LEDs, and a kick ass boyfriend willing to hand sew for hours by headlamp on the playa….
…Oh, and of course:
A sketch of your design
A vector design program like Adobe Illustrator or Corel Draw.
3D modeling program. I used Autodesk Fusion 360 to model the shells on the chest, shoulders and legs. Fusion 360 is an Autodesk modeling program still in beta testing and thus available for free online here. This program has a lot of potential because it incorporates both solid modeling and organic, sculptural modeling, but is still a bit buggy and takes some patience. My collaborator, Ashley used Solidworks to model the nodes that attach the fiber optics to the LEDs.
A 3D printer: We used two very different kinds of printers for this project.
I printed the shells on a Objet Connex 500 printer at Instructables. This is a UV cure resin printer that can print in two materials simultaneously, which is how I got the black and grey stripped effect on the shells. If you don't have direct access to a printer like this, you can send your file to a printing service like Fathom, or you could print the shells in one material only.
Ashley printed the nodes that attach the fiber optics to the LEDs on a Makerbot in Ninjaflex TPE flexible filament, which was essential for it’s strength and flexibility.
A laser cutter: (if you don’t have access to your own laser cutter you can send your file to an online laser cutting service like: https://www.ponoko.com/, or look up local laser cutter in your area). I really don’t recommend cutting out this design by hand, but it would not be impossible.
A sewing machine: We hand sewed a lot of this design but in the future I might sew it by machine. A home machine may have trouble handling the thicker leather so I would advise using an Industrial machine or even a walking foot if you have access to one. Either way, a leather specific needle makes a huge difference.
Leather: I used two kinds of leather, one white, one dark grey. Both stamped with a reptile pattern. Though both were relatively sturdy, my white leather, was a little thicker stiffer than the grey, which worked well. You will need a lot of both to complete this whole project. I probably used about 1/4 to 1/2 a hide of each. You can order leather online from places like Tandy.
A stiff translucent fabric: you will need about a yard of this to make the base for the el wire “fins” on the headpiece. I used a whitish netting, but something with a tighter weave would have worked better.
Fabric for the gathered trim on the headpiece: I used a stiff black tricot, but you could use anything fairly thin and stiff.
Side light (or side glow) fiber optics: The most cost effective way to get these is to order them in bulk from China from places like aliexpress.com, but this can take a few weeks. There are a few different kinds of fiber on the market which can be confusing to filter through. One kind has a clear sheath over it, and another doesn’t. I generally prefer the unsheathed kind, but it is stiffer, and therefore not great for applications like the chest and shoulders of this costume where it needs to bend and flex. We used four different diameters for this project. Sheathed ones for the chest and unsheathed for the head.
For the head: about three meters of 3mm and three meters of 4mm fibers
For the chest: about eight meters of 6mm fiber
LEDs: I used 60 per meter fully addressable RGB WS2812 LED strip
For the head: 36 LEDs
For the chest: 22 LEDs
For the shoulders: 28 LEDs in each
For the legs: 9 LEDs in each leg
Wire for the LEDs: We used three-strand servo connector wire like this, because it is very flexible, color coded, and already configured into 3 strand ribbons. It also comes with connectors already attached. You will need quite a few sections.
3.7v lithium polymer batteries: At least 3, one for each piece of the costume (and preferably spares to plug in when the first ones run out). We used these 2500 mAh hour batteries from Adafruit for all three pieces. This size works well for the headpiece, and lasts relatively long, but the chest and pants could take a larger battery if you wanted longer battery life.
Micro USB charging boards: One for each battery. Ashley suggested we wire these into each lithium battery, because it means you can safely charge a battery anywhere with just a mini USB cable instead of needing a complicated charging station. We used these.
Microcontrollers: We used 3 Arduino Micros in this project, but almost any simple microcontroller will work. Ashley recently introduced me to the DFRobot Beetle, which I like quite a lot.
Small on/off slide switches like these: 3, one for each costume piece to turn the lights on and off
JSTtwo-wire connectors like these. You will need one for each battery.
El wire: I used about 20ft of white and 20ft of teal 2.6mm high bright el wire in the headpiece (not the colors pictured here). I get all my el wire at Cool Neon in Oakland.
An el wire driver: you will need one capable of powering at least to 30ft of wire. The Quieter Blue Fish from Cool Neon was a good size for this headpiece and it doesn’t make a loud buzzing noise like some drivers, which is really annoying to have close to your ears.
El wire soldering supplies: copper tape, solder, one Y connector, and heat shrink tubing, which can all be purchased from Cool Neon.
A soldering iron
A soldering helping hands
A hot glue gun
A heat gun, blowdryer, or lighter
A wire stripper: if you don’t want to go crazy stripping el wire, I suggest one like this.
A wire cutter
Needle nosed pliers
Snaps to match your leather and the appropriate snap setting kit
Two 5/8” buckles
A leather punch
A large-ish hand sewing needle
Thick white thread
One yard of 1” wide black elastic
Fabritac or Magnatac
Small white zip ties
Double sided tape
An exacto knife
Oaktag: if you want to alter my pattern or create your own
3 power boost converters: these lithium batteries are 3.7v, but LEDs are designed to run at 5v for maximum brightness. This outfit can run straight off the 3.7v, but if you want the lights to be a bit brighter (which looks good in the chest and legs, but isn’t necessary for the head), you can wire in a power booster.
3 buttons for switching between lighting programs: if you want the option to program more than one lighting pattern for your LEDs, you will need to wire a button onto each of your microcontrollers.