Maurin Donneaud invents “robot skin”
Published 2 December 2014 by Quentin Chevrier
Meet Maurin Donneaud, a couturier of connected fabrics who has been devoted to making textiles tactile through gestual interaction with fabric since 2005. Data Paulette, the new hackerspace for textiles in Paris, hosts his multi-layered fabric switches.
Maurin and his acolytes at Data Paulette have something to smile about. They have just moved into their own space on the 1st floor of Caserne de Reuilly, an official squat managed by the collective Les Jardins d’Alice that is also home to the Blackloop hackerspace (gathering of the hackerspaces Blackboxe and Loop) in Paris’ 12th arrondissement. “The space will be 100 % dedicated to fabric, 90 % to electronic fabric,” says Maurin. Right now we’re working on a big, very technical, commercial project : T-shirts that change color. But we’re not using the common thermochromic technique, we developed something else…” The tone is set.
250 square centimeters of very promising black fabric
Outside this collective project, Maurin is focused on a 50-centimeter black sqaure, a multi-layered fabric connected to a programmable Teensy board (sort of mini-condensed Arduino), itself connected to Pure Data on a computer. Visually, his prototype matrix of fabric switches, Keyboard, is nothing extraordinary—a stain here, some loose threads there… and then Maurin plugs it in.
The multiple layers of conductive fabrics, piezoresistive fabrics and conventional fabrics creates a soft, creasable, washable and tactile surface. Segmented into 256 touches (16 x 16 matrix), the fabric senses the pressure applied when rubbed, stroked or pressed. It’s not an installation or a gadget or a tool—“It’s a new material,” says Maurin.
“The greatest freedom of a designer is not to create new uses for a known fabric, but to invent a new fabric, and then to tackle its applications.” Maurin Donneaud
What it is for ?
Potential applications are countless. “Textiles are everywhere,” Maurin continues. “In clothing, of course, but also in beds, chairs, cars, airplanes, buses, hospitals, toys…” He dreams of “a fabric guitar video-game interface, accessible to all ages, lighter than a plastic version. We could make the entire surface touch-sensitive and play with awesome effects. And the fabric would make it look really cool !”
Hospital beds are another promising application. “Hospital staff around the world face the problem of bedsores. With this fabric, you can monitor the position and immobility of patients over time to prevent them. On a mattress, the fabric is also sensitive enough to detect the pulse of a sleeping baby.” One can easily imagine an application to prevent the sudden death of an infant.
Connected rugs and carpets, giant keyboards that allow people with limited fine motor skills to write… Ideas are hardly lacking to go beyond the prototype. “If you wear this fabric, you can detect the slightest movement through the pressure of the fabric against the skin and the folds created by the joints.”
The first ones interested just might be… robots ! For Maurin, this sensitive fabric is a true “robot skin”. “Our skin helps us to grab, to touch. Robots know how to do this. However, our skin also tells us when we are touched, and how. Robots almost never know when they are touched, and even less how.” With this fabric, a robot or even a prosthesis could know if it is being actively grabbed, stroked, lightly prodded, or if somebody drew a cross on it… Enough to fill one of the major gaps in human-machine interaction.
Maurin Donneaud developed Keyboard (produced by a textile manufacturing company in Saint-Etienne) as a musical instrument, so it has both pleasant and practical uses for testing and improvement.
Keyboard prototype tested at Schmiede festival 2014, in Austria :
Data Paulette textiles hackerspace’s Twitter account (website under construction)
Maurin Donneaud will exhibit his work at Pop Up Lab @ LeWeb, curated and hosted by Makery, on 9 December at Eurosites Les Docks, 50 avenue du Président Wilson, 93200 Aubervilliers.
Words and photos Quentin Chevrier