This post is part of a series on the best controllers for DIY electronics.
For wearable tech, you’ll want something tiny but powerful. It’s nice to have integrated sensors and/or feedback — like accelerometers, LEDs, and haptic motors. These are pretty evenly split between working on their own or requiring wireless communication.
I’m a little obsessed with the LightBlue Bean for projects needing wireless connectivity. This bad boy includes a temperature sensor, 3-axis accelerometer for motion sensing, and programmable RGB LED, plus a tiny proto-board, which can be sawn off to make the Bean even tinier. The Bean also takes a 3V CR2032 coin cell. It has no USB interface — you program it wirelessly over Bluetooth, from your mobile device or computer, and you can easily build a simple mobile touch interface using Handy BLE. It runs just $30; there’s a bigger Plus version too, but honestly, the original Bean is the showstopper. It’s essentially a promo board for its chip, so you can take this ecosystem all the way to the marketplace. (It’s great for tiny robots, too!)
The TinyLily is ideal for standalone projects. It’s washable, sewable, and the size of a dime! It runs on a coin cell and takes Arduino code. It’s got a decent set of digital and analog pins. It goes for just $10 (you’ll also need one USB programmer module). This thing is nigh-unnoticeable in e-textiles, and will just slightly bulk up your jewelry. Plus, you can get tiny sewable LED modules (with built-in resistors!) to go with it. There’s a strange lack of online projects, but it takes Arduino code and will work with most tutorials.
The MetaWear series also deserves mention: If you’re already familiar with mobile app development, check out these tiny powerhouses. They’re ready-made hearts for an infinite range of wearable and biotech applications, including coin-battery and rechargeable options with various sensors.
If you just want something that looks pretty and can be quickly deployed (while you focus on the rest of your project), write a Pebble app. They have great tutorials. Plus, the Pebble Time Round is the first and only smartwatch that I consider beautiful enough to serve as a “real” watch. And there are inexpensive models available, as well as older ones that are still supported. New models can work with DIY “smartstraps” to add physical integrations.
The most popular DIY wearable tech projects
- 👗 LED clothing: light-up skirts, light-up umbrellas, light-up color-changing scarves, light-up armor (often sound- or motion-reactive). I put DIY bike lights in this category too. NeoPixels can be bought in individual sewable units; EL wire is flexible, but can have irritating power requirements and (IMHO) tends to look unfinished. Start with something that matches the power level of your board (usually 3.3V or 5V). Adafruit has a lot of great sewable modules and materials that handle different tasks for e-textiles. The Bean gives you motion sensing with its built-in accel; add a sound sensor to kick your kicks up a notch.
- ♊ Paired bracelets, pendants, or rings (these also sometimes show up as lamps). The Bluetooth-enabled MetaWear is small enough to hide in small places, with examples to help you build a beautiful companion app.
- 💓 Pulse-detecting wearables: TinyLily’s got this. Small but mighty, it should pair well with a heart rate sensor and some feedback mechanism. Give it a nice rechargeable battery to draw from.
- ⚠ Wearable help alert buttons for the elderly or infirm, often with fall detection. The MetaWear was born for this; the new Hexiwear is also promising, especially once it grows up and slims down a little. (Then again, the big friendly buttons and form factor could be a plus.) Add GPS for instant location updates.