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Bling that blinks: How an engineer's surreal Burning Man experience grew into a fashion business

In 2008, Eric Boyd attended his first Burning Man festival.
At the time, the Owen Sound-raised engineer had just given himself a style upgrade, inspired by the makeovers on the show Beauty and the Geek. His fashion transformation made him particularly sensitive to the festival's much-touted-radical self-expression—the crazier, the better. He closely observed the "costumes of personal illumination" he came across at the annual festival of fire and art in the Nevada desert.
"It's a surreal world in the desert. It's seemingly traumatizing, but the costuming culture of personal illumination actually operates as a survival and communicative strategy," recalls Boyd. That is, neon raver faux fur might keep you warm during the night, but you still need glo-sticks and LED lights to get your "glow on" in order to avoid getting hit by an art car or EL-wire bike in this Mad Max-meets-Disneyland playground.
But Boyd was still an engineer, albeit one who had just forsworn a five-year high-tech career in Silicon Valley for a geek-friendly hackerspace in San Francisco. He was constantly looking for ways of improving things. If these LED accessories were such purposeful forms of self-expression, why weren't they more intelligent? Instead of just blinking, wouldn't it be cooler if they actually did something?
Fast forward four years, and Boyd is still dwelling upon these questions. After moving to Toronto in 2010, he's become part of HackLab.TO, the renowned "part workshop, part tree house, and part revolutionary lair" in Kensington Market. Boyd has again reinvented himself to become something of an electronic artisan with Sensebridge, the company he runs that designs, manufactures and sells reactive electronic jewelry, or what Boyd likes to call "wearable electronic senses." Perhaps only in Canada's high-tech hub could a viable small business emerge from Boyd's pursuit to make personal illumination "more personal."
Consider it nerd accoutrement. The aesthetic is geek-apropos circuit boards, but rendered responsive—or in Boyd parlance, "conversational"—with blinking LEDs. Rather than catch someone's attention with the glint of silver or gold, you can wear the Sound Spark, a $29 necklace that blinks in time with your voice.
Boyd's transformation into entrepreneur has been evolutionary. At the time of the pivotal Burning Man experience, the dot-com vet (he co-founded the social bookmarking site StumbleUpon during one of the years he took off whilst studying for his undergrad in engineering at Queen's) was a member of the San Francisco hackerspace Noisebridge. The educational non-profit space provided Boyd with the infrastructure and resources to connect with like-minded Noisebridge collaborators into forming the earliest iteration of his company, the Sensebridge collective. Pulled together by an interest in developing cyborg-like technologies, it's how a project called the Compass Vibro Anklet eventually became the North Paw, an anklet that vibrates to tell you which way is north.
For $149, you can order the North Paw as a kit from the Sensebridge.net website, and make yourself. Both the idea of selling a kit, rather than something ready-to-wear, and the ".net" are very telling aspects of the San Francisco part of Sensebridge's history. The .net URL, a sister to the .com site, is the domain name for the company's "open-source hardware business" side. Inspired by the pioneering work of San Francisco hacker and inventor Mitch Altman, Sensebridge licenses the design of their kits and products under the free and permissive MIT licence.
"The whole idea is not necessarily to get rich quick selling, but rather promote a vision of the world where people have control of the technology they own," Boyd says. "You want to know that you can hack or change it. And if you don't like it, you can improve it."
If San Francisco was where the Sensebridge.net ethos was born, it was in Toronto, at the fully-equipped HackLab.TO, that Boyd was able to concentrate full-time on its commercial side: products for the Sensebridge.com electronic jewelry line. In the process, Boyd has discovered that he's not alone in wanting to explore the relationship between technology, our bodies, our place in the world and style.
With the Toronto Wearables Meetup, Boyd found a group dedicated to networking artists, engineers and designers interested in wearable technologies, electronics and fashions. The group's co-founder Kate Hartman, an assistant professor of wearable and mobile technology at OCAD, is internationally renowned for her work and has become a leader in promoting wearable technology and building a local community. Hired by the university as part of their Digital Futures Initiative, Hartman is a part of the initiative's "expert faculty" to establish the institution's physical computing and wearable electronics research fields. (Boyd himself has taught wearable electronic workshops at Ryerson, and the University of Toronto.)
While Toronto's traditional fashion industry has struggled with a creative class talent drain, as well as dwindling local manufacturing post-free-trade, wearable technology designers benefit from a culture ethos that has defined Toronto's micro-entrepreneurship and micro-production standards. Whereas the world of fashion has often been a closed commercial system, the open-source values that designers and engineers like Boyd have embraced have fast tracked innovation.
For instance, the New York City-based company Adafruit Industries makes DIY wearable electronics and kits. Much of the hardware they carry, like a small, wearable microprocessor called Flora that allows control of LEDs, and can be linked to GPS and Bluetooth, have attracted the attention of geeks and stylistas. Since it's open-source, the company benefits immensely from their customers continuing to utilize their platforms in the research and development of their own business.
Boyd is candid about the struggles he has encountered in developing the Sensebridge product line. Take, for instance, Sensebridge's Heart Spark, a delicate heart-shaped pendant that flashes light in time with the wearer's heartbeat. Although online purchases of the product spiked around Valentine's Day—"The whole idea is that if you get excited, people can see that"—not everybody is thrilled about displaying their bio-signals. When Boyd had a booth at last year's Toronto Mini Maker Faire, he recalls an older woman finding the product "too intimate." He realizes that for Sensebridge's expansion to be successful, he has to market his electronic jewelry as "quirky" but also within the bounds of traditional fashion accessories.
"I am interested [in my electronic jewelry] for the self-augmented transhumanism aspect," he says. "But I don't think my customers are."
Looking at things more broadly, Boyd doesn't necessarily see commercialization as compromising his hacker culture philosophy. If anything, it's a return to his geek roots.
"I was talking with [local industrial designer] Mike Doell, who makes the inecklace, and we talked about how the people who buy the inecklace aren't geeks, but 'aspirational' geeks,'" says Boyd. "And I think that is a market that's 100 times bigger than the geek market."
Even this casual fashion-world acceptance connects with Boyd's goal to push the boundaries of social signalling. The novelty of seeing something "blink" in an intimate, face-to-face encounter—an effect that's akin to wearing a statement necklace or a humorous tourist tee shirt—is a tech-driven way of increasing human connections. He has started selling at local artisan fairs and intends to develop Sound Spark as an electronic artisanal product line that can sell in local gift shops like Magic Pony or even the Ontario Science Centre.
And recently, he's moved even further away from hardware into the handmade, having just completed a series of "lost wax casting" classes at jewelry-making workshop/boutique the Devil's Workshop.
What did he end up making? Sterling silver rings, which sounds very old-school until you notice they're inspired by the eight-bit characters of Pac-Man.

Rea McNamara is a Toronto writer.

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