Class of ’05 | While she was earning her master’s degree at the Royal College of Art, Isabel Lizardi C’05—along with her classmates Matt Johnson, Bibi Nelson, and Becky Pilditch—came up with a brilliant thesis project: conductive body paint. “So you could draw circuits directly on the body,” Lizardi explains. Man and machine would meld into one.
None of them had a background in chemistry or electronics (Lizardi majored in fine arts and Japanese studies at Penn). And the electrical engineer who sat next to them in class thought they were a bit nuts. But none of that was going to stop them. So they did some research, bought a few ingredients, and started mixing.
What they concocted has led to a thriving start-up, some crazy projects involving painted circuitry, and a hip-hop music video featuring painted “human synthesizers.” Their non-toxic, carbon paint now works on fabric, paper, walls, glass—and just about any other surface. Their company—Bare Conductive—is now selling paint kits for everyone from expert hackers to schoolchildren. And from within their small studio, based in the impossibly hip East End of London, Lizardi and her crew are engineering a creative revolution.
That’s the short story. The long story is a bit more roundabout.
“The four of us were looking at technology and the way people interact with devices and electronics in today’s society,” Lizardi starts off. That got them thinking about wearable technology, and that got them thinking about people “putting implants into their body to have technology totally integrated into themselves.
“So we actually started to do a lot of research into anthropology and the way that people use [different] means of self-expression,” she continues. That’s how they ended up creating the body paint. But after they presented their final project, Sony Entertainment contacted them. And that’s how the paint ended up in recording artist Calvin Harris’ music video, which features custom electronics and 15 bikini-clad women painted with the ink. As the women perform various dance moves, they trigger the different notes of Harris’ song.
The video got something like a million hits on YouTube, and “we started being flooded by requests from people to get this material,” Lizardi says. “But we were surprised because people wanted to use it on things that were off the body. They wanted to put it on tabletops and paper and walls.”
That’s how they launched their company in 2009, and came out with their first pot of paint in 2011. But the story doesn’t stop there.
“Since then, we’ve organically found all these other areas that are interesting for it …” she starts again.
In many ways, the paint isn’t too different from copper wire. You can grab a battery and an LED bulb, paint a line between them, and watch the circuit light up. In this way, the paint can serve as a resource to teach basic electronics. “Unlike soldering and wires and breadboards, paint is a material that most people and children feel very comfortable with,” Lizardi says. Schoolteachers are big fans of Bare Conductive’s basic kits.
But the material is more complex than it appears. The paint isn’t as conductive as metal wire, so it has some resistance. As a result, it can serve as a capacitor—something that can store electrical charge. Hook a patch of paint up to a power source and a microcontroller, and it can be used as a capacitive sensor.
In layman’s terms, Lizardi explains: “Basically, there’s an electric field around this patch of paint, and the microcontroller is reading the disruption that my hand is creating within that space. So I can use that information to trigger effects.”
At the Bare Conductive studio, a good part of one wall is painted black. Tap anywhere on this area, and a light turns on. But that’s just one application. And though Lizardi and the Bare Conductive crew may have their ideas about how to use the paint, true to their DIY, hacker beginnings, they’re leaving it up to you to come up with creative applications.
“We really want to foster this idea of the maker movement, and people sharing knowledge and ideas,” says Lizardi. “We want people who use our paint to then post it back on our website and share it with the community.”
The most creative consumer projects include a flexible circuit board, a range of musical instruments, and a potentiometer. Recently, a record company approached Bare Conductive about creating interactive concert posters: when you touch the painted posters, they play a music sample.
“There’s all this talk about paper vanishing as a medium and how everything in the future is going to be screens,” Lizardi says. While in many instances screens are superior, she adds, “we don’t see the physical and the tangible vanishing into a world of screens. We really think there’s going to be a place for interactive surfaces, which are not necessarily complex or smart but simply are very tangible and really engaging to the sensory.”
For Lizardi, who came to Penn with the intention of studying biology and graduated with an art degree, this project is where her scientific and her artistic sensibilities meet. At the Bare Conductive HQ, no matter how many serious responsibilities she juggles, Lizardi makes sure to schedule some playtime.
“There’s always a bit of playing around with the paint,” Lizardi laughs. “Because I think we all derive inspiration from using our hands.”
—Maanvi Singh C’13