Dec 192013

jacketThroughout my first semester as an EMAC major, the topic of “value judgments” has somehow managed to come up in discussion at least once (often multiple times) within every course that I’ve enrolled in. A value judgment, in the context that I am referring, can be defined as “an estimate, usually subjective, of the worth, quality, goodness, evil, etc., of something or someone..” In other words, it is placing judgment upon something (or someone) that you really don’t know anything about, without regard for the point of view of others. This topic is one that I’ve always felt strongly about, and I’ve learned through multiple discussions at UTD that many other students feel the same way. But somehow, regardless of the fact that no one seems to agree with placing value judgments upon one another, people continue to do it anyway.  It is almost as if it is an instinctual reaction.

So I decided to make a wearable media project that could somehow demonstrate how wrong these value judgments can be. The topic that I chose for these value judgments is music. Music is something that almost everyone can relate to on some level. Age, race, gender, culture, or geographic location does not affect whether or not someone listens to music or not. I personally have never met anyone in my lifetime that did not enjoy some form of music. My 82 year old Czechoslovakian grandmother sure does love her polka albums! But she also won’t hesitate to tell me that the music I listen to is just worthless noise. Value judgment alert!

Music stirs our emotions. That’s why we listen to it. But we’re all individuals who have led different lives and had different experiences. So it only makes sense that it will take different types of music to stir each unique individual’s emotions.  This sounds simple and logical enough when you read it, right? But I’d be willing to bet that it wouldn’t take you more than a few moments to recall a time when someone you know (or maybe even you) has placed judgment on the music that someone else listens to, because it just sounds like “noise”, and for whatever reason, some people automatically deem anything that they do not like as worthless, without regard for the fact that it could be worth so much more to someone else.

You can read more about music and emotion here:

So I’ve designed a jacket that visually displays the emotional value of music that is played in its vicinity. Deciding exactly how to gauge this value was difficult. My lack of medical training prevents me from plugging anything into the wearer’s brain for a completely accurate reading. And my financial restrictions kept me from being able to implement something simpler, like a heart monitor, to read emotional response. So I was limited to only implementing a microphone to “hear” the music, and I depended on information gathered by others  about how the rhythm or beats of music affect the brain and how brain activity increases when musical stimuli becomes more intense (or loud). I then used symbolism to visually link these rhythmic brain responses to emotion with a sequence of electroluminescent wires that light up with the rhythm and intensity of music the microphone hears. This method worked well for me. I’m a writer, and somewhat of a literature buff, so I think the whole world revolves around symbolism anyway.


EL Secquencer

The most difficult challenge for me during construction was the interference from the inverter to the microphone. Electroluminescent wire only responds to an alternating current. But the microcontroller, an EL Sequencer, runs on a direct current. This requires a DC to AC inverter to provide power to the EL wires. This type of inverter generates a high pitched squealing noise. It is barely audible to the ear, but the microphone seemed to always pick it up. I even tried moving the inverter as far away from the mic as possible, but the amount of interference didn’t seem to change at all. So I believe that the interference is actually coming through the wiring in the circuit. I tried using different types of wire, as well, but this also did not help.

My last resort was to set a threshold in my code that told the EL wire not to light up unless it picks up sounds louder than the interference. This led to another problem, because the level of interference is spikey and irregular, and seems to be slightly different each time the inverter is turned on. If I set the threshold too high, the microphone and EL wires aren’t responsive enough to music. But if I set it too low, they seem to randomly respond and flicker for no reason. So I have to find the “sweet spot” to set the threshold to. And that sweet spot is likely to change the next time I turn the inverter on. So I end up having to change up my code a little bit with each use. After days upon days of troubleshooting, I never could find a way around that. I did, however, find a helpful fix for the minor spiking during use. I coded a counter that gathers several microphone readings per second, and the EL wires respond to the average output of those readings. This is helpful for averaging out the random interference spikes. (Credit: Harrison is the best TA ever!)

RainbowAs for the overall design of the jacket, I made several choices based on symbolism and aesthetics. I chose a rainbow (ROYGBV) sequence for the EL wires. Rainbow is typically associated with happiness, and while not all music is happy, it does emotionally fulfill us in some way, and that makes us happy. I wrapped the wires around the chest because the heart is the part of the body that we generally link our emotions to. I decided having the wires on the outside of the jacket was too harsh on the eyes and not very visually appealing. So instead I decided to place them on the inside of the jacket, and chose white as the jacket’s color so that the light could shine through more easily. This also gives the appearance of a diffused internal glow, instead of a harsh outer one, which I thought to be more fitting for a symbolic representation of emotion.

In conclusion, my project was ultimately a success. I’d definitely be much happier with it if it didn’t need to be reconfigured before each use. But it works, and as someone who had literally zero coding OR sewing experience before Fashioning Circuits, that’s all I could possibly hope for.