December 13, 2023

Cooper’s Story: Developing a Smart Jacket

Not having to worry about money was something that I had not ever really experienced in the kinds of projects I do. Especially in robotics, everything is so expensive.” 

How did you learn about GripTape, and what made you decide to apply? My best friend did GripTape, and he pulled me into his project on game development. He said, “This is right up your alley. You should do it!” I decided to apply. 

What Learning Challenge did you choose?
I wanted to create a smart jacket. I tried to implement a smattering of sensors, microprocessors, and other electronics and integrate that with the internet so that I could have a lot of extra functionality built into a  jacket.

Why did you choose this Challenge? My freshman year of high school I knew I wanted to get into microcontrollers, because in middle school I had a teacher who had introduced me to Arduino and 3D modeling. This gave me the idea for a smart jacket. My first iteration included a flashlight with laser pointers placed in one arm of the jacket with the battery pack in the opposite pocket. The flashlight provided on/off, and you could point at what you wanted and the light would go there. I thought it was really cool. And then I almost got kicked out of school for it! My principal said, “I know you’re a smart kid. Work with some of the teachers, and if you want to keep working on the jacket project then go for it.” My computer science teacher had a starter Arduino Kit he’d never used. I started teaching myself Arduino. That’s when I found GripTape. 

How did you approach your Learning Challenge? 
About the time I started my Learning Challenge, COVID hit. I kept a pretty good pace the first five or six weeks. I would order something, learn as much as I could about it,  and by the end of the week, I’d come up with a somewhat complete subsystem. For example, I got a little camera module for the ESP32. I hooked it up, and I figured out what I could and couldn’t do with it. Eventually, though, I lost some momentum during COVID. 

How did you use your funding? I do a lot of projects on my own, but the ability to have funding for something like this completely reorganized my approach. The funding made it possible for me to get something I was interested in and learn all about it quickly. It allowed me to get even better at self-driven learning. 

What was it like to work with a Champion? It was lovely to have a Champion who was there to listen to how things were going. I can’t blame my friends for not wanting to hear all about how I did something really cool with a microprocessor. My parents will listen to me, of course, but it was super nice to have a person who was genuinely interested in what I was saying and understood what I was talking about.

What did you set out to learn and what did you learn? I learned a lot. There was technical stuff: networking, how the internet works as a concept, how servers work, about MQTT-style data management, and how all of that applies in a microcontroller setting. And — I don’t know how to put this into words exactly — but I learned a lot about the way to handle unexpected “stuff”: mental health, time management, project expectations, and feature creep. 

The idea of feature creep was especially interesting. While I was doing my Learning Challenge, I was watching a video series on this fantastical Marble Machine project. It’s a contraption that plays a bunch of different instruments in time using marbles. It’s a wonderful work of art, machinery, and engineering. Something that really caught my attention was the idea that in the early period of a project there’s immense and rapid growth. Then, this idea of “feature creep” sets in. A project gets more and more features because you’re in such a bubble of the concept that you create more and more pieces until the project has become an impossible task for you to complete. I didn’t have that exactly with my project, but I did in a way. Given my skill level, even in favorable conditions, I probably only could have gotten a few sensors and a small display working. But feature creep happened, and I got thinking about how to add text to speech, use cellular, etc., and I got pretty far. My Learning Challenge taught me a lot about how to set up a project to ensure I can complete it. I’ve still got some personal development to do to get better at expectation-setting, but it was an important learning.

What advice would you give young people who are thinking about applying? Don’t be afraid to just do it. My friend was afraid to apply originally because he thought he might waste the money. This idea that somehow you or your idea isn't worth it is wrong. You totally are. Don’t be afraid to get in there and just do it. Even if you do get through it and discover you don’t like it, that’s totally fine. That’s another form of self-improvement because you’re actively finding out what you are interested in. You just got $500 to do what you want. Learning is the project.

What impact did the Challenge have on you? I learned a lot about expectations as I’ve said. But, more importantly, I feel more free to explore and learn and be and do. The other day, I saw a really pretty display on campus, and I thought  “I need to come back to that.” I found a YouTube video on displays and associated tech. I started with the stuff I’d already learned about LCDs and that led me to what I knew about using electro-luminescence to make VFD displays, which are really pretty but fell out of fashion. I thought “What  if you combined VFD and LCDs as a concept?" I kept researching and found out that’s what OLED is. That led me to a manufacturer’s page … and there was the display I’d seen on campus! If I didn’t do GripTape, I might not have had the same kind of interaction and drive to try and learn as much as possible about an interest. 

Cooper completed his challenge in high school and is now studying electrical engineering.