There are two amazing things that have happened this year—the release of the new Star Wars movie and the debut of ADA.ADA.ADA., a theater show about one of my heroines, Ada Lovelace. The show, created and performed by Zoe Philpott, is a technology delight, being performed in the UK with future stops planned around the world. To make things even more spectacular, an LED dress wows the audience, bringing together the past and present. I decided to interrupt Zoe’s holiday with some questions about her fab show, starting with the topic of the real star, Ada Lovelace.
Ada Lovelace is one of the overlooked women in history. She changed our modern lives, writing the world’s first complex computer programme in 1843. And yet for being a woman, she was written out of history. Just because our inherited history lacks women doesn’t mean they weren’t there. When you start looking they are loads of great female minds to inspire men, women and children now and on into the future. So I decided to update history with ‘herstory’ one story at a time. I am starting with Ada Lovelace and have created ‘Ada.Ada.Ada’ to help make her a household name, worldwide.
Although Ada is known by some for her programming, she had other interests and achievements. I asked about some of the more surprising ones.
At twelve years old she wrote a book on how to fly—with diagrams and equations—based on the anatomy of birds. In her twenties not only did she invent recognisable software, she went on to work on the 4th dimension theories that are familiar to Stephen Hawking, as well as exploring electricity and its relationship to the brain, and also—as an accomplished harpist—she contemplated becoming a published composer. Ada kicked arse.
Zoe has years of interactive storytelling experience and she brings all of it to this show, including some technology for audience members. Probably the most memorable is Ada Lovelace’s dress bursting with 4,400 LEDs of color, and surprisingly, it is an appropriate metaphor for the lady herself.
Ada talked about herself in terms of light in correspondence, as a fairy of thousands of hues, as her ideas ‘casting light’ for the future. So, after investigating all sorts of embedded technology and costume designs, we settled on using light in a 1840 period dress. The dress is created in collaboration with period costume maker Kat Behague and world leading technologist and co-founder of Hackspace London, Charles Yarnold.
Period dresses take a lot of yardage, and as you can imagine, there were challenges trying to get so many LEDs illuminated in the dress. Zoe outlines the progress from prototype to finished dress.
We did an initial prototype using single LEDs and conductive thread. This was a painful process, mentally and physically. The 400+ Neopixel LEDs on the prototype had to be sown, unpicked and re-sown by hand—four times! The conductive thread is effective up to a point, but at the scale we are working it proved unpredictable and not resilient. The steel fibres would break down and cause all sorts of problems. It was a nightmare. So after twelve weeks working on that we deciding to dump the conductive thread and use strips. We had avoided this before, as we were keen to retain movement in the fabric. We also wanted to avoid looking like we just had a screen in a dress. So the second dress is a completely different design from the first—technically and creatively.
As you might have guessed, there are a lot of Adafruit parts used in the dress, and given the subject it is a perfect match. Zoe is able to trigger the light display through her glove, but she has other ideas in mind for future shows.
The show is interactive as engaging an audience with clever technology turns the viewer into the owner of the story. So I am developing more ideas for the interactivity between audience and dress. There is potential to engage the audience via their phones and other local devices so they can affect the dress and projections during the performance as her story unfolds. This is part of the ongoing development with the Ada team.
Here’s an interview with Zoe, including a peek at the show.
Zoe’s show is expanding it’s performances, as well as partnerships. As someone who is a big believer in STEM/STEAM education, my hope is that this show is seen in every country with opportunities for on-line engagement. Who knows, it could even lead to more wearable tech as audience members discover the magic of controlling LEDs with programming. For those that haven’t had the luck of seeing the show, I’d recommend our book Getting Started With Adafruit FLORA. Not only does it give a clear introduction to our easy-to-use microcontroller that can control lights, sounds and sensors, but it also shares some great info on combining textiles with tech. Get ready to extend Ada’s life into the future with your own creation. Sometimes it’s okay to repeat history. Don’t forget so send us a video of your wearable.
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