Nifty Email-Counting T-Shirt Shows People You're Too Busy to Talk (video)

Is your inbox overflowing? You might want to make an email-counting t-shirt like the one Boston-based developer Chris Ball and his biophysicist wife Madeleine Price Ball put together.

The components: a t-shirt preprinted with numbers along the Y axis, an Arduino LilyPad micro-controller, LED lights, a power supply that requires one triple-A battery, conductive thread, a bluetooth dongle, and an Android phone with open-source software just for the email-counting shirt. Chris wrote the code, and Madeleine, who works on the Personal Genome Project at Harvard, did the sewing.

Leah Buechley, director of the high-low tech research group at MIT's Media Lab, and online electronic-parts retailer SparkFun designed the LilyPad, washable hardware that can add light, sounds and sensors to clothing.

As Chris explains in the video, the phone tells the LilyPad using the dongle when there's a new email. The LilyPad then shows the number on the LEDs via the conductive thread. The numbers are in binary, so when he has three new emails, the LEDs next to the "1" and the "2" light up. The shirt maxes out at 127 emails.

Chris works for One Laptop Per Child, which makes low-cost laptops for children in developing countries. He tells LAUNCH via email that as a software engineer working at a mainly hardware organization, he wanted a better understanding of what OLPC does. This process led him to Arduino, an open-source electronics prototyping platform [ see our profile of Pulse Sensor, which also uses Arduino ].

"Madeleine came up with idea of using a binary representation and the shirt design, and sewed on the components, and I wrote the software to run on the Lilypad and my Android phone," he says.

Chris has worn the shirt to parties, where people can tell him how many emails he has before he knows -- simply because he needs to look down. He likes that the shirt lets people know how busy you are without them having to ask.

"If there are 50 mails sitting in my inbox and I look like I'm doing something, maybe now isn't a good time to talk to me," he notes. "I like that it exposes a part of our electronic life that is usually invisible to others."

People have incorporated the LilyPad into all kinds of cool clothing [ check out this scarf and this LilyPad instruction video ]. Chris's favorite item is LilyPad co-creator Leah Buechley's turn-signal biking jacket.


Chris Ball
Email: chris-www at printf dot net

Madeleine Price Ball
Email: meprice at fas dot harvard dot edu
Twitter: @madprime