Next-Generation Tag: Sneaky e-Shirts

An LED display woven into a T-shirt is adding a high-tech twist to a playground favorite.

THE GIST

A new version of tag aimed at adults uses interactive e-textile shirts.

The chaser goes after a virtual token that can sense proximity and leap to another shirt.

The game's creators envision e-clothing that can be updated via text message.

Clothing with built-in LED displays might be geektastic, but a group of Canadian researchers is taking T-shirt gadgetry to an entirely new level. They've constructed interactive e-textile shirts for an adult game of tag where virtual tokens can jump from one player to another.

Roel Vertegaal, an associate professor in human-computer interaction and director of the Human Media Laboratory at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, led the creation of their game, "TagURIt."

"There have been dresses made with all LEDs and that's cool," he said. "But to be able to actually determine exactly what image is going to be shown on there is even cooler. And that's possible with this technology."

Vertegaal's team used an e-textile made by Philips called Lumalive, which is a 14-by-14 pixel matrix of full-color RGB LEDs woven into a flexible fabric with padding that can be programmed to display images. The pillow-like display technology is usually used for advertising and is sturdy enough to go in the washing machine, Vertegaal said.

"Lumalive is very much non-interactive so we made it interactive," he said. Their design incorporates conductive fabric patches and conductive thread wired to a capacitive touch sensor and a small wearable Bluetooth Arduino computer. A small radio circuit measures players' positions relative to each other.

Currently the game consists of a chaser and two target players. A target player will have one of two Super Mario Brothers-themed tokens appear on the shirt front, each worth different points. When the chaser is nearly within arm's reach of a player, the token can jump to the other target player's shirt.

"That makes it quite a bit more challenging," Vertegaal said. He compares TagURIt to soccer, where players have the ball temporarily, passing it away when someone from the other team gets close.

The longer a player holds onto a token, the more points he or she gains. Conversely, a chaser starts with points that are deducted incrementally until five minutes are up or the chaser succeeds in getting the token, whatever comes first. Touching conductive fabric patches causes the computer to send a signal to the Lumalive, updating the display with a final score.

The Human Media Lab is one of the few universities in the world to have Lumalive displays, which Vertegaal says each cost more than $7,000. The whole game system costs around $20,000.

"As they get into the $100 price range, everybody will be wearing them," Vertegaal said. He and his colleagues are presenting TagURIt at the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems this week in Vancouver.

Saul Greenberg is a computer science professor at the University of Calgary who specializes in proxemics, which is the study of measurable distances between people during different types of interactions.

TagURIt goes well beyond games and offers a new way to think about interaction design, he said. "We can start asking the question: Can we get technology to mediate itself by its understanding of the people around it, in this case using wearables?"

Vertegaal imagines multiple ways to interact with e-textiles. For example, clothing could be programmed to show text messages. "You'll have your Facebook on your shirt for sure," he said with a chuckle. "Maybe that's our next project."