Ten Years of the LilyPad Arduino

Years ago now O’Reilly Media ran something called the Emerging Technology Conference, better known as ETech. It was there, back in 2009…

Alasdair Allan
4 years agoWearables

Years ago now O’Reilly Media ran something called the Emerging Technology Conference, better known as ETech. It was there, back in 2009, that I first ran across the LilyPad Arduino, and got to practice my sewing with Leah Buechley the woman that invented it.

The LilyPad Arduino was designed for e-textiles and wearables projects. It along with an accompanying collection of power supplies, sensors, and actuators share unique design with large conductive sew tabs around the edges. These allow the boards to be sewn onto fabrics, and soft surfaces, using conductive thread to build working circuits. Essentially it’s a specially packaged Arduino, a sewable computer.

While Leah was working on the ideas behind the LilyPad as far back as 2006, the distinctive flower like shape—with those large holes allowing it to be sewn onto fabrics—was a product of design for manufacture after a conversation with Nate Seidle at SparkFun turned her final fabric prototype into a circuit board that people could purchase. Released at the start of October back in 2007, at the tail end of last week the LilyPad celebrated its tenth birthday.

When it was released the LilyPad quickly became synonymous with the phrase “wearable electronics,” and it wasn’t until 2012 that the LilyPad had any real competition when Adafruit introduced its Flora range. Though the Flora was designed to be more beginner-friendly than the LilyPad, the two platforms shared a lot of the same features—including the distinctive looking sew tabs around the edges. The two boards competing boards, along with Adafruit’s slightly newer and smaller Gemma, have been the backbone of wearable design ever since.

To celebrate the tenth anniversary SparkFun have updated the LilyPad design and introducing the LilyPad ProtoSnap Plus. The new board is an updated version of the previous generation of LilyPad USB and comes pre-wired to a number of LEDs, sensors, and actuators. All of which can be snapped off once prototyping is completed, and then sewn into a garment.

Alongside the new board SparkFun also launched the LilyPad Resource Center. It contains a collection of tutorials, and information on each piece in the expanded LilyPad ecosystem, as well as a place to learn about e-textiles and wearables to help you get started with the LilyPad.

I have a real soft spot for the LilyPad. It’s still my go to board when I’m dealing with wearables, although the way I’m using it has changed a lot since the first ‘soundie’ I stitched together back in 2009 at ETech.

The state of the board market is very different than it was when the LilyPad was originally designed, and I do wonder how hard it would be to update the line and leverage the plummeting cost of affordable wireless chipsets, like the now ubiquitous Espressif chips. Connecting together different garments with wireless—whether Bluetooth LE or the more energy hungry WiFi—might finally be a real use for a wireless mesh.

People have been predicting wearables would be the next big thing for about as long as I’ve been involved in technology. But lately the predictions have become louder and more frequent.

I think that the deciding factor about what is going to be the next big thing is its technological maturity — that the technology has reached the point where it’s useable by people other than the alpha geeks. It appears possible that we’ve reached that point for wearables, as the three factors that matter most when dealing with them — size, battery life and communications — are starting to converge towards the stage where the devices are not just possible, but usable.

Alasdair Allan
Scientist, author, hacker, maker, and journalist. Building, breaking, and writing. For hire. You can reach me at 📫 alasdair@babilim.co.uk.
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