The Electric Ferret:
A Wearable Computer For Costuming
Jeffrey Jonas
ECE 690: Professor Ziavras





Many thanks to Professor Quentin Jones of NJIT’s CIS department for his enthralling ubiquitous/pervasive computer class, which gave increased context and insight to leading-edge technologies and invigorated my enthusiasm and dedication to engineering.


Thanks to Sotirios G. Ziavras for his effort and dedication to the ECE department.


Herbie Hamill designed the Fuzzle Ferret fursuit and hand-made the foam head.





COTS: Commercial Off The Shelf: refers to using commercially available products as opposed to custom designing hardware or software.  In industry, the “design-it-yourself or buy-pre-made” decision is often driven by deadlines and budget.  Even for prototyping, using readily available products and modifying them as necessary can save considerable time and effort.


Escort: a person accompanying a costumed performer primarily to assist when outside, for security, coordination with others and to assure safety.


FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions, a term for a web page or documentation of introductory material or material organized with the most commonly asked questions first.


Fursuit:fur-faq term for a costume, usually an animal character or mascot.


Haptic:haptic an input systems based on hand gestures.


Mems: mems MicroElectroMechanical Systems, a class of small devices that integrates tiny mechanical and electrical components on a silicon chip.


Performer: the person wearing the costume is usually in a performing role.  Wearable computers are intended to augment the performance by assisting the performer without detracting from the overall effect.  Properly integrated, the computers are invisible to the audience and do not deface the costume.


PDA: Personal Data Assistant: a general term for computing devices that can be held in one hand.  Apple’s Newton and the Palm Pilot pioneered the device.  They often have multiple interfaces (infra-red, serial, USB, wireless) to facilitate data sharing to other units (peer to peer) or to a PC.








background and prior art


Costumes and masks date back to pre-recorded history.  Native Americans costumes tend to emulate animals to assist in using their perceived powers or magic.  Even in modern times, animal spirits have never been forgotten.  They're still used as team mascots or product spokesmen because they convey deeply rooted meanings and elicit favorable reactions.furfaq


It's hard to summarize why people enjoy creating such characters: whether artistic creations or expressions of a character, many people participate in various degrees on an individual basis, without corporate sponsorship or a commercial interest.  Some buy pre-made costumes, some build it totally themselves.  This paper is about the author's character Fuzzle Ferret, which was purchased pre-made but is being extensively modified and enhanced.


Most costumes are low tech: just a fabric or fur body and a head (made in various ways: foam, fiberglass, plastic).  Some integrate a fan for cooling or a simple hinged mechanism for the head's jaw to move along with the performer's mouth motions.  Technology is shunned since it's failure prone and hard to maintain.  Even broadway and opera productions favor simpler technology for

the increased reliability and low maintenance.


Just adding lights can make costumes spectacular.  Disneyworld's "Electrical Light Parade" disney remains impressive after all these years even though it's just light bulbs because they are properly integrated into the costumes and parade floats giving a vivid effect in the night. It is humbling to remember that Thomas Edison did something similar in 1880:edison


In New York, he staged an "Electric Torch Light Parade" in which 400 men marched through Manhattan -- wearing light bulbs on their heads and power lines down their sleeves that were connected to a horse-drawn, steam-powered generator.  The message came across loud and clear: electricity was safe.


Luma Theatre of Light (see Appendix B) is ground breaking in theatrical lighting effects but faces harsh critics since effects are not a replacement for good acting and storytelling. "The Flying Karamazov Brothers" fkb are wonderfully entertaining jugglers without techno-gadgetry due to their skills blended with good skits and audience interaction.


At this time, just using battery powered lights and neon wands distinguishes Fuzzle Ferret since few others integrate them into their actions as effectively.  But some creators are judiciously integrating new techniques to give their character additional expression, such as movable ears, more facial gestures, and special effects.


How is this project different?


Few people have the budget or resources of the MIT Media labs mit-media, which enjoys tremendous publicity for their experiments in multimedia, wearable computers, ubiquitious computers and other leading edge applications.  This project tries to tame wild speculation with what can be achieved in the short-term with moderate resources and budget but without being short-sighted.


The goals are

·         to showcase new technology

·         design something that can really be built by one person

·         use COTS when possible for rapid prototyping

·         modularity for maintenance and design evolution

·         extreme reliability

·         to demonstrate or document design tradeoffs such as central vs. distributed processing and control


The technology will enhance communications for the performer and control elements of the costume (lighting, actuation of features) not just under the performer's control but automatically

in reaction to external stimuli, eventually leading to several costumes networking together to synchronize effects.


There are many wearable computer designs but they are not suitable for use in costumes.  Keyboards are not useable when wearing thick gloves or furry paws!  Most fursuit heads have extremely limited vision so it's difficult to look at external displays.  Unless the computer display and controls can be hidden or integrated into the costume, it is "out of character" and does not look right.


Fursuits are usually thick and padded, limiting body motion.  Most heads and faces are solid pieces, allowing for no motion, or facial expression.  Most don't even have movable jaws.  This means that the performer must communicate solely by body posture and gestures.  Unless the jaw moves, talking is forbidden since it's disconcerting to hear a voice from a non-moving face, and unless one's speaking like the character being portrayed, it breaks the illusion of the character "becoming alive".


The "Neon Man / Neon Anubis" costume anubis is impressive, but it is a stand-alone unit.  It does not coordinate or synchronize to other events.  This project explores more than just reacting to light or sound.  The goal is for the costume's effects (lights, animatronics, etc.) to react automatically to the surrounding and to coordinate with compatibly equipped devices or performers.


safety first


Similar to "the Laws of Robotics" (a robot must never harm a human being, a robot must obey orders given it by human beings unless it would harm a human...) Asimov, wearable computers must do no harm.  The ACM "Forum On Risks To The Public In Computers And Related Systems" RISKS teaches its readers the horrors of things gone wrong such as The Apollo 1 Disaster apollo1 where wiring faults were among the faults contributing to the death of the astronauts and loss of the capsule.


Since the computer and wiring is in a costume that is often difficult to take off, the performer's safety is paramount.  All parts and systems must be fail-safe.  That does not mean they can't fail, they must fail in a way that does not endanger the performer.  Like the laws of robotics, a device may have to sacrifice itself to protect the person in the costume or those nearby.  The performer's commands must override all others, especially the "EMERGENCY STOP" which halts everything, instantly.  Movable parts must stop.  Power must go off for certain.


This translates into very practical considerations safety.  All connectors must be ruggedized.  Like military-specification parts, they must protect themselves and the wiring with strain relief on the wire, shrouds around pins to prevent damage while disconnected, positive locking to prevent pulling apart yet easily disconnected as needed (particularly for connectors between separate parts such as the head), connect only one way.


Many wiring harness failures are seen when working on cars, such as

·         rubbing on a sharp corner until the wires short to the metal frame

·         flexing until the insulation breaks and wires short to each other


While wires can and will fail at stress points, proper design will minimize the hazard, such as keeping power lines separated enough to minimize total shorts. Risks digest readers are familiar with many cases where the primary and secondary cables were in the same duct so they failed simultaneously (very bad news for the nuclear reactor that they were controlling!).  Telecom digest telecom readers are often surprised when BOTH of their "redundant" carriers failed simultaneously because the cables were really the same, or it's the same underlying carrier, or there's some other single point of failure.


Translating that experience to wearable computers means using redundant wiring separated enough that it's unlikely for it to all fail together.  If space permits, leave spare wires in harnesses for in-the-field repairs (telephone cables always have spares since it's so hard to add more cables under streets, on poles, in walls).  Built in continuity tests would detect cable breaks automatically instead of relying on the performer to find errors.


Wearable computers are the cover story to the October 2003 IEEE Spectrum journal.  Borrowing from grid-network technology, redundant wiring is part of the design and each sensor and active component implements a self healing network to work around the inevitable failure of the wires in the fabric.


paws, not hands


Most costumes totally immerse the wearer from head to toe.  That includes wearing gloves, often very thick furry gloves to give the impression of the animal's paws.  Some have only 4 fingers!  Since keyboards or visible switches are unacceptable, other methods have been used.


There are been many experiments for computer input without a keyboard, particularly for handicapped people

·         tracking eye motion and blinking, often with a mouth "puffer" for "clicking" on the action

·         electrodes implanted directly into the brain

·         sensing vibrations in the arm or bone so even subtle gestures are amplified, filtered and used as input


Nintendo's game system was surprisingly effective with their "Power Glove": a glove that sensed finger motion and position.  It allowed a greater interaction with the virtual reality of the games nintendo.


One fursuit creator was clever and built switches into the paw-gloves in way to prevent accidental triggering during normal performance and interacting with people: magnetically sensitive switches were sewn into each fingertip bbw


The switches, once the wires were soldered in place and shrink wrap tube on nice and snug were sewn into the top side of the fingertips.  In the thumb was placed a small button magnet.  To set off an effect all one needs to do is place one's thumb over the desired finger and the effect would activate.  Sewn into the arms a set of wires ran up to a connector in the neck where it would plug into the mask.  The whole thing works too good, I was very pleased with the results.


Mems (micro electro mechanical systems) are already commercially available for accelerometers and other types of sensors that were previously expensive or bulky.  Articles about "smart dust" and "motes" (cubic millimeter-sized sensors) are exciting particularly since they're wireless

(allowing significant freedom in where they're used: no more wires!) and leads to ideas such as:


Glue a dust mote on each of your fingernails," Pister said. "Accelerometers will sense the orientation and motion of each of your fingertips, and talk to the computer in your watch.  QWERTY is the first step to proving the concept, but you can imagine much more useful and creative ways to interface to your computer if it knows where your fingers are: sculpt 3D shapes in virtual clay, play the piano, gesture in sign language and have to computer translate.mote


Such an interface would be ideal for a wearable computer since it can be used while standing, just gesturing with one hand to clearly communicate to the computer.


This project will explore methods of using glove-based input.  It is anticipated that wiring both hands with sensors will allow a greater number of unambiguous gestures.  While a chording input method may be overkill, a simplified input encoding will be explored that balances simplicity with the need for a rich command set.  A display in the head is essential for this to provide feedback that a command was entered, and to allow modal inputs, perhaps a system of menus where the fingers are up/down/left/right and select (similar to the way many computer displays use only 4-6 buttons for the on-screen menu).  An essential part of the design from the start is an easy to remember gesture for "emergency off" yet one that's hard to trigger accidentally.


your head is ringing


Integrating a cellular phone is an easy way to add voice and data communications, particularly as cell phones now include interfaces such as RS232, USB, IRDA and bluetooth.


Cellular phone manufacturers are experimenting with a variety of technologies to make them easier to use.  In addition to a hands-free headset, many now offer voice-dialing, minimizing the need to touch any buttons.  If there's space in the costume head for the performer to wear a headset, that's a quick solution!


Cell phones offer SMS SMS:

Short Message Service (SMS) is the ability to send and receive short alphanumeric messages to and from mobile telephones.


If the cell phone were integrated into the fursuit's network then a display inside the head could display the messages without any need for the performer to take any action.  That way, performers and escorts could message each other silently wither one on one, or to an entire group by using the "send message to group" feature already in cellular phones.  Some cellular phones have separate external and internal displays, the external displays being usually limited to 1 or 2 lines of text so they're only for high priority messages.  If that were extended to a remote display, then a display in the costume could integrate receiving SMS messages with internal menus to minimize distractions or confusion among multiple displays.

spinoff technology for the handicapped


Robert Goodwin is a deaf fursuit performer.  His website describes how he performs without obstacles without reliance on technology (see APPENDIX A).


As wearable computers evolve, they should assist people with disabilities.  Performers with SMS displays always visible (in the costume head, a heads-up display, on the arm like Dick Tracy, etc) would reduce the dependence on audio communications and equalize access for all.


As haptic interfaces evolve from just touch/tap into full gesture recognition (such as the PowerGlove), then perhaps sign language could be recognized by the computer as input to better integrate into deaf communications.


other inputs


Data acquisition and logging is no longer confined to laboratories.  Companies such as Maxim Maxim provide interface components intended to facilitate product design such as additional interfaces to mobile devices (cellular phones, laptop computers, PDAs)


1-Wire® devices lower system cost and simplify design with an interface protocol that supplies control, signaling, and power over a single-wire connection. A variety of identification, sensor, control, and memory functions are available in traditional IC packages, ultra-small CSPs, and stainless-steel-clad iButtons®.


Only 2 contacts are needed to provide power and communications.  Many devices are put on the same wires since they're all individually addressed using their unique ID.  Such sensors are already deployed in building fire alarm systems and "smart buildings" for environmental control since they're rugged and reliable.


Scuba divers have long used dive computers to calculate their allowable dive time by sensing depth, air consumption and measuring time.  Wearable computers help athletes by monitoring their temperature at multiple points, respiration, heart rate and such.  "Data shoes" measure not just footsteps but the force exerted.  Similarly, performers in costume need to be aware of overheating, elapsed time, amount of exertion and such.  Sensors for temperature, motion, humidity and such can help.  More advanced costumes can use that information not just to warn the performer but to react with additional cooling.  The more data gathered, the better the system can predict problems, thus the need for many temperature sensors all over the body.  Happily, that is easy since the sensors are so small, cheap and easy to interface.


the body network, reach out and touch someone


Early wearable computers recognized the need to communicate and collaborate with other systems rather than work alone.  Steve Mann's Mann pioneering work on "smart clothing" and wearable computers recognized the need for wireless communication yet used cables and wires all over his body to link the various components.


Many sensors already have digital interfaces integrated into the chip, such as the Maxim "1 wire" interface previously discussed.  A loop of just 2 wires acts as power and network bus to all devices!


The concept of a "Personal Area Network" is gaining popularity for integrating all the devices one carries in their pockets: cellular phone, PDA, headset, MP3 player, etc.  USB, HP-IL and other standards are fine for the desktop where there's space for the hub, connectors and wires, but wireless is preferred for mobile devices.


Infrared communication is already standardized as IRDA and is popular for PDAs, printers, cell phones and printers.  The problem is short range, the devices must "see" each other, and low speed (under 1 megabit).


Bluetooth is a wireless standard that is intentionally low power since it's intended for devices that are close to each other to collaborate.  Manufacturers were slow to adopt the standard despite the availability of low cost chips to add that capability.


"WiFi" wireless networks Jonas are currently popular.  Restaurants such as McDonalds and Starbucks are offering wireless "hotspots" for customers to use their own 802.11 equipped devices, and groups such as NYC Wireless NYCwire provides free public wireless internet service to mobile users in public spaces throughout the New York City metro area.


Of interest to this project are the peer-to-peer and ad-hoc networking capabilities, where devices "discover" each other dynamically.  This allows for unlimited interactions of devices.

For example

·         a central system could coordinate several performers wirelessly

·         costumes could "find" each other and react as programmed, or the performers could create ad-lib performances by selecting reactions and sequences.

·         props such as juggling clubs could have transmitters so the costume reacts as the prop gets close.


A more complete solution would place a transceiver in the prop so it could react too (such as change color depending on who's holding it, blink patterns depending on its orientation, etc).


RFID (Radio Frequency ID) tags are now ubiquitous.  Toll systems such as the EZPass depend on a wireless transponder to identify the vehicle as it passes the tollbooth.  Many buildings have electronic door locks that open based on a card that does not have to physically touch the reader.  "Active Badge" systems go beyond that by exploring ways for devices to be aware of who is near them and to react accordingly.  Each person wears a RFID tag and devices can react accordingly: computers can lock the keyboard when the user walks away.  Machines can react by offering the user's preferences (such as the coffee machine knowing your preferred blend).  The fursuit project aims to use such technology for fun and entertainment as objects identify themselves, what they're near and react accordingly!


At 11 megabit, 802.11b wireless equipment is already bargain priced since 54 megabit standards are emerging.  For example, a Belkin 802.11b access point was recently $10.00 after rebate, and could be battery powered for portability.  Match that to a PDA with a wireless interface such as those by Xircom and there's no need for custom hardware.


Security must be implemented from the beginning to avoid problems whether intentional or unintentional.  Happily, most products have encryption built in. Depending on the SSID is insufficient: SSID

SSID: Short for service set identifier, a 32-character unique identifier attached to the header of packets sent over a WLAN that acts as a password  when a mobile device tries to connect to the BSS. The SSID differentiates one WLAN from another, so all access points and all devices attempting to connect to a specific WLAN must use the same SSID. A device will not be permitted to join the BSS unless it can provide the unique SSID.  Because an SSID can be sniffed in plain text from a packet it does not supply any security to the network.


An SSID is also referred to as a network name because essentially it is a name that identifies a wireless network.


With careful filtering, some of this could be shared via the internet (ex: a live web-cam from the fursuit's camera) but I'm hesitant to offer any controls via internet even via ssh/vpn or other secure channels since a denial-of-service-attack could block legitimite controls.


Integration, testing, refinement and deployment


The project is intended to provide a rapid prototyping testbed yet remain flexible as new technologies are available, and to incorporate other design changes learned from experience.


A modular approach is planned in several phases


Phase 1: using parts on hand, prototype a stand-alone lighting controller with a display in the head and glove input.  Use a PDA for the controller instead of an embedded system since it's COTS and I already have one.  Start with a simple glove input with just magnetic sensors in the fingertips and elsewhere.  Allow for trial-and-error to choose the best displays, wiring methods and hand-gestures for commands.  Optimize the mapping of hand gestures to most frequently used commands.


Phase 2: integrate external communications devices: WiFi, cellular phone for SMS.  Explore methods to program the special effects, preferably using a portable unit (PDA or laptop computer) so changes can be made in the field or when away from the lab. Use an embedded system only if it's easier to interface to the devices instead of retrofitting to the PDA.


Phase 3: add more sensors to react to other objects.  Share the technology with others so our costumes can collaborate.


Phase 4: a more complex paw-glove interface using advanced sensors such as Smart Dust motes for truly reading gestures and hand position.  The display processor will evolve into a recommender system to prioritize what is displayed to the performer and minimize interruptions.




People have high expectations from technology.  Ubiquitious computing is now a reality with people using cellular phones, PDAs and laptops as part of their daily routines.  Most of these devices operate separately, but there is a growing desire for them to work together, preferably in a seamless manner (all audio devices link together, etc) leading to the concept of a "personal network" of the devices in your hands, pockets and within reach.


Wearable computers are no longer science fiction.  But most assume that the wearer can stop to look at a handheld display or use both hands to press buttons to enter commands.  Integrating a wearable computer into a costume challenges many of those assumptions with natural crossovers into handicapped access.  But most of all, it's fun!

APPENDIX A: additional resources for fursuits



The Furry Costume Information Exchange



Robert Goodwin: Frequently Asked Questions On Fursuiting for those with Hearing Difficulties



more references and resources for costuming



A costume consulting company specializing in animatronics



FerretTronics develops chips and software to control robotic and electronic devices from computer devices.



Robert Skegg's "Twinkle Foozle" costume has 5-channel animation - mouth, eyes and eyelids - and can be operated manually or by a control track synced to music on casette tape.



Kevin Kelm's original impressive and unique costume creations with animatronics and lighting



a costume with animatronics to add expressions to eyes and mouth and a clever glove input device.

Appendix B: Luma: Theatre of Light


Abstracts from



Sadly, the review reinforces the view that technology alone is not a show.  Good storytelling and acting matter most.  Like ubicomp's eventual goal, good technology will be an "invisible servant" to help us do things better.


What do you get when you combine the arts of dance, puppetry, fireworks and magic? A stunning illuminated show called "Luma: Theatre of Light."


"Dark is the canvas and light is the brush," said Michael Marlin, founder and director of the group. "We paint kinetic tapestries of light for the audience."  Trapeze artists dressed in elaborate costumes, jugglers, glowing hula-hoops and other various props make for a great spectacle for all ages.  The show is produced by the First Light Company from Madison, Wis., and uses cutting-edge light technologies to bring to life real-world scenes.  The group also has enlisted the talents of Marc Ricketts, an internationally revered kite designer and performer.  His famed "zero-wind kite technology" gives wings to the light props.


'Luma' is a theatre of spectacle which aims to rival shows like 'Stomp', but by creating a display from light rather than sound. The creator of the show gives a speech at the start about the beauty of light and his use of juggling, which unfortunately sets a didactic tone.  Yes, an educational show that involves juggling - a dreaded concoction.  The first piece - a techno-fuelled dance of light sticks - was truly jaw dropping, but the rest of it was let down by poor choreography, an incongruous choice of music and far too much juggling, which can never be more than street entertainment, no matter how jazzy.  The show relies heavily on technology, and not enough on the performers' ability, resulting in something that is much less interesting and exciting than it should be.






















Jonas Jonas, Jeffrey: presentation on WiFi for Pervasive Computing CIS 786, Summer 2003