Arts / Media

Adafruit’s wearables director will show you how to light up a room (literally)

A profile of Becky Stern, a Brooklyn artist and maker who has built a personal brand online showing people how to make clothing (and other stuff) light up, track movement and solve problems.

Becky Stern with her Firewalker LED Sneakers. (Photo courtesy of Adafruit)

Fort Greene’s Becky Stern is Adafruit’s director of wearable electronics. If you’re not familiar with the company, it makes a bunch of components that make it easier to make gadgets. It’s all about helping its users learn more about making more stuff.

To that end, Stern is an online personality for the company, teaching new projects every week over YouTube and encouraging the DIY spirit.

It’s a second act for Stern, whose career has long sat at the intersection of craft, gadgets and media. Previously, she made similar project videos for MAKE Magazine. “I don’t get the satisfaction if I just make a thing,” Stern told us, when we met up at a coffee shop in Fort Greene, “I get the satisfaction if I make a thing and put it online.”

After growing up in Connecticut, Stern came to New York City to attend Parsons as an undergrad. She’s basically been a New Yorker since, though she did have a brief stint in a graduate program in Arizona. That time was useful for her, as she took part in a sculpture program where learned more about heavy fabrication and power tools. Stern also worked part-time, then, blogging and vlogging for MAKE. Her work got a good response and it evolved into a full-time job just as the recession made public universities in Arizona eager to unload graduate students.

She made her way back to New York City in the summer of 2009. Stern has spent most of her years here in Brooklyn: first in Williamsburg as an upperclass undergrad, and now in Fort Greene.

At MAKE, Stern took a role on at MAKE:Craft, a side of the brand more about clothing and the home. She sewed and knitted, but also added in electronic components. Stern says she has always been interested in tricking out clothing, and her work at MAKE:Craft made for a good bridge between the company’s more bread-and-butter hardware side (robots and sensors and gadget hacks) and its expansion into fashion and homewares. For example, check out her jacket that turns televisions off on the sly.

Stern told us that she has learned three big lessons during her time at MAKE:

    • How to deal with Internet Trolls. “I developed a protective troll coating,” she said. People get very invested in their gadgets and get especially testy when a woman is given authority (as in, a voice for a leader like MAKE) and then says something they disagree with.
    • Establishing her editorial Voice. “I’ve got this crafty/makey/hackery kind of lady vibe. People, I think, find me refreshing because I am really energetic,” she said. Stern also likes to find two disparate things to mashup. Blogging is very iterative: a lot of writing and seeing what the feedback is on your writing. Rapid iteration on the projects helped her figure out what she wanted to get better at.
    • Personal vision. Stern realized it wasn’t just making but sharing what she made that satisfied her. She’d actually won a Student Emmy Award in high school for a video she made, and one of her parents is a journalist. So that interest in documentation may have come hardwired all along.

The person who most encouraged her and boosted her profile at MAKE was Phil Torrone. He’s the one who asked her to start blogging for the company part-time after several of her undergrad projects got featured on the site. Then he helped her land the full-time position.

Later, Torrone would become the creative director at Adafruit. He and Stern had always shared an understanding that wearables had a bright future as more and more electronics got smaller and easier to work with.

In fact, that’s a big part of what made the whole Adafruit business model work. As cellphone companies ordered accelerometers, GPS, Bluetooth and other tiny devices in the thousands, the price on those chips dropped precipitously. That allowed Adafruit to put them in simple-to-assemble housings and make DIY easier for those interested in trying it.

The next natural progression, Stern said, is these sensors being so small and cheap that you can put them on the real estate of your body. “We saw it as an area that is going to take off.”

In 2012, Torrone asked Stern to join the talent side of Adafruit, making online videos about how to use the group’s products.

“My job isn’t so dissimilar to what it used to be,” Stern said, of her role at Adafruit.

See all of Stern's projects

Here are three very Brooklyn projects she has made for the company:

  • Citi Bike helmet. A light-up helmet that will guide you to the nearest Citi Bike station. It doesn’t need access to the Internet. It uses data loaded onto a chip and a GPS to tell you where to go.
  • GPS dog harness. If you’re a data junky, you can find out how far your dog runs around when you let her off leash with this harness. Using a GPS, it tracks your dog’s run. You can use the harness to make a sort of GMap drawing by throwing a ball in different directions and letting the GPS track the dog’s movements.
  • Firewalker LED Sneakers. Blow everyone at the warehouse dance party away when you turn on these extra glowy sneakers and shake the night away.

Stern is also a member F.A.T. (motto: “Release early and often and with rap music”). The group is into putting digital art into the public domain.

She’s also been involved with the hardware group, Madagascar Institute (motto: “Fear is never boring”), and took part in making these mechanical bulls for a Google I/O:

We last ran into Stern at the TWO5SIX conference in Downtown Brooklyn.

Series: Brooklyn

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