McCormick Magazine

Collaboration generates illumination

School of the Art Institute of Chicago

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BreadboardThe best design combines the science and rigor of engineering with the flair and creativity of art. The McCormick School has paired up with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to create functional art that could represent the future of both architecture and fashion.

Kinetic art installation exhibits smart electronics
If you're there, they'll find you. They'll sense your presence, stop right above you, then call more than a dozen of their friends to come take a look. Soon, 16 lights will illuminate your presence. This is a vision of the future of lighting, born of a collaboration between art and engineering.

It's a new kinetic art installation, soon to be installed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the product of a partnership between the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and McCormick. The piece was commissioned from Anders Nereim, professor and chair of the architecture, interior architecture, and designed objects department at the School of the Art Institute. Nereim's work focuses on creating architectural components with embedded intelligence, which allow, for example, lights to move across the ceiling and look for areas that need to be lit. Using this idea, Nereim built two prototypes for the installation that, he says, "thrashed themselves apart in about a week."

"It was very, very clear that it needed a great deal of help with the mechanical engineering," he says.

Michael PeshkinEnter Michael Peshkin, professor of mechanical engineering at McCormick, who has experience with robotics and who just happens to be an old friend of Nereim's.

The two were on a bicycle trip through Yellowstone National Park when they began talking about the project, spending several hours filling a notebook with possible mechanical solutions to the problem. Meanwhile, the two schools were looking for a way they could collaborate, so the project became something of a test case.

Peshkin — with the help of University of Colorado undergraduate student Dan Johnson, who will attend graduate school at McCormick in the fall — helped create the 16 independent lights, which run along tracks on a 4-by-8-foot sheet of plywood overhead. The lights use infrared sensors to find humans down below, then send out signals to the other lights to come over and illuminate the person as well.

"It's fun," Peshkin says. "It took creativity and whimsy, and it's interesting to see how the lights behave. It's like: They found me, they're coming."

Nereim says he even sees bullying behavior among the lights — sometimes they'll trap one light against the wall, which causes that light to go into an error mode.

Both Nereim and Peshkin say they hope this project leads to future collaborations. "The process of getting well-designed objects out into the world requires both engineering and art," Nereim says.

Dresses shine light on clothing of the future
DressOut with the old and in with the light.

In the future, sidewalks will be filled with people whose clothing flashes pictures and messages from light-emitting diodes. Patterns will change with the temperature, and lights will synchronize with the beat of a heart or the rhythm of breath.

That's the vision of Anke Loh, fashion designer and assistant professor of fashion design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Alan Sahakian, the Bette and Neison Harris Professor of Teaching Excellence in biomedical engineering and electrical engineering and computer science.

The two have collaborated for the past year on creating illuminated clothing that responds to sound and temperature. Before their partnership began, Loh had some success with designs using Luminex, a special fabric woven with fiber optics. But the clothing only lit up, and Loh wanted to take the garments to the next level by making the illumination dynamic and responsive. She approached McCormick, and Sahakian stepped up to the challenge.

"I worked on developing some sensors and electronic circuits and drivers that would make the fabric sensitive to sound and temperature," Sahakian says. The result was a red Luminex fabric with green LEDs that are illuminated along with the beat of music or the sound of a voice. Another similarly designed fabric changed colors with the temperature of the air.

The team exhibited their work last fall at Illuminate, a showcase event sponsored by Chicago design shop Luminaire, and at an exhibit at the Chicago Tourism Center.

Sahakian then wanted to get students involved, so he recruited electrical engineering students Linda Buzzi and Jonathan Bender (both '08) to work on the project as their senior capstone design project. The two helped create the circuitry needed for an illuminated dress to act as a receiver for a transmitter implanted in a bracelet. When the person wearing the bracelet comes close to the dress, the garment will change colors and patterns.

Loh says she began mixing technology with fashion when she came to Chicago two years ago. "I just think it's an interesting approach," she says. "I think it will go in this direction anyway, and maybe in 20 years this will be part of our ready-to-wear garments."

Sahakian says he and Loh will apply for more funding in order to continue to improve the design of the fabric by creating more complex patterns and eventually moving images. Sahakian also hopes to incorporate his interest in biomedical electronics into a dress that responds to cardiac activity or respiration.

"There's a lot of potential for creativity," Sahakian says. "This is an example of an interaction that worked out really well between McCormick and the Art Institute. There's a lot of potential to build on that."

—Emily Ayshford