Thunderstrom dress (2)The “Thunderstorm” dress (a Rainbow Winters project) was developed for the “Wired to Wear” exhibition in the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry to demonstrate the potential of a new form of inorganic printed electronics, specifically, micro light emitting diodes (LEDs).

The dress turns the wearer into a living representation of a thunderstorm, lighting up in response to sound, as the volume rises, the dress illuminates to create ‘visual music’. Smart wearables are at the creative heart, where technology starts to interface with the human body. The principle behind the Thunderstorm Dress design is one of the ‘experiential’, yet is a great demonstration of the novel LED technology. The technology used here is not an add-on feature but used as an expressive tool.

The concept had previously been realised using electroluminescent elements (EL) to create a lightning flash in the panels of the dress. However, this required the wearer to carry high voltage devices, bulky electronics and heavy batteries. Inorganic printed LEDs afforded the potential to create a truly wearable piece of haute couture, using low voltages, miniature electronics and small batteries. Additionally, due to the panel construction, the lamps could be driven in such a way as to create a realistic flash.

These LEDs of 27um in diameter were grown on a heteroepitaxy substrate and dispersed in a carrier fluid to form an ink, which can then be screen printed. This production method allows for high speed production of solid-state lighting on flexible substrates. LEDs become more efficient as their size is decreased, however, the difficulties in making the electrical connection to micro LEDs has previously prevented these benefits being exploited outside the laboratory. During printing and curing, the geometry of the individual micro LEDs causes them to orientate into a single preferential direction. Connections were then made via further printed layers of conductive and dielectric ink to create flexible lamps consisting of areas of discrete LEDs, lending it to be fabricated into bespoke shapes that are application dependant. These lamps have low power consumption and high light output making them an efficient, adaptable and safe option for incorporating into garments and for packaging.

The garment was composed of a fitted holographic leather bodice and panelled circle skirt assembled from eight electronic LED panels. The panels needed to be stiff enough to carry the sculptural aesthetics of the skirt but soft enough to be stitched and integrated with the leather. To match the stiffness of the graphics layer with the leather, a specialist interfacing was used called Vilene Decovil. The materials were chosen to give volume and fullness to the dress shape, and to ensure the robustness for transportation to the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, which is where the dress is on display until May 2020.

This project was a collaboration between Rainbow Winters, Nth Degree Technologies Worldwide Inc. and the Welsh Centre of Printing and Coating.