Enter the maze

Hacking tablecloths

A hacked teapot on a tablecloth

Textiles – that’s all about cloth and fabrics isn’t it? Not any more. Electronic textiles have arrived and G. Hack, an all-women hacking club at Queen Mary, University of London, have been at play again this time armed with fabric, sewing needles, thread that conducts electricity, ‘thermochromic’ inks that are affected by heat...oh, and a hacked teapot.

G.Hack’s previous installation involved a map of London with each area of the map linked to sound recorded in a local London tea house. A teapot, tracked by a computer vision system triggered the appropriate recording to be played when a teapot was placed on it. Working with a team of design students from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, this time G.Hack started from the same idea but went all textile.

The G.Hack team wanted to make the installation more portable, so decided to translate the interaction from the hard surface of a tabletop to the soft surface of a tablecloth embedding sensors into the fabric of the map. In the new version it was these sensors rather than a computer vision system that detected where the teapot was placed. That information was sent on to an Arduino microchip and from there to a computer and interactive software that controlled the sound output. Simultaneously, the ink painted on the map changed colour or became transparent when a hacked teapot was placed on it. The teapot was fitted with a stand-alone circuit that emitted just enough heat to warm up its base. That was enough to trigger the thermochromatic paint to change colour. A heat sensor stopped the warming to avoid burning marks on to the tablecloth (although it was quite tempting to use burns as a design bonus).

G.Hack set up the resulting textile map of London with teapot, circuits, thermochromic inks, conductive threads, computer and speakers on a large table in the foyer of the new Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design building for an afternoon. Students and staff came by to share stories about tea and textile printing traditions, have fun painting the boroughs and play with the sounds.

Stir together some simple electronic know-how, fabric and lots of enthusiasm and what started off as a minimalistic drawing of London on a white cloth, turns into a colourful and noisy social event where a whole bunch of people get a taste for electronic textiles.