Soft Speakers: Interaction Design with Digitally-Embroidered Fabric Actuators

Carleton UniversityCanada


Concept / Student


Sara Nabil (Primary Designer and Researcher), Lee Jones (Student), Audrey Girouard (Supervising Professor)


This interaction design project introduces Soft Speakers, designed custom fabric actuators that can be used as audio speakers and vibro-haptic actuators. The impact of our tactile, malleable and aesthetic designs is expanding the design space of speakers from rigid devices into wearables, soft furnishing and fabric objects. Our digital-embroidery design technique enables DIY fabrication of audio feedback into e-textile interfaces. We also identified 5 factors for their parametric design for additive and constructive methods. To demonstrate the feasibility of our interaction design and the breadth of new products that it enables, we implemented 5 applications: 3 wearables, a piece of furniture and a soft toy. Studying Soft Speakers with maker-users expanded the design space, empowering users and supporting inclusive design. Our user study includes insights on user experience of real-world interactive applications for remote communication, e-learning, entertainment, navigation and gaming, enabled by Soft Speakers’ customizable and scalable form factor.

For the TalkingTuque application, Judy (12) had a need to combining her winter hat with headphones. She sketched her design with a colour palette inspired from her winter suit. We used a matching wool yarn to add some embellishment for the aesthetic desirability of the hat. When Judy wore it during her outdoor walks, she used it to listen to her favourite sound track and navigate Google-Maps. She elaborated: “This is way better than headphones… It’s more comfortable because it’s soft and fabric so it is much better because it warms my ears”.

Seeking to make a T-shirt with speakers for video games (which also vibrates with the game interactions), Adam designed an embroidery pattern that incorporates Soft Speakers. This produced the Tectonic-Tshirt application, a 279×95mm digitally embroidered design that covers his upper back muscles for haptic-audio sensation. One each side, we incorporated a Soft Speaker underneath the design as the first embroidery layer. As the digital machine embroidered his T-shirt, Adam commented: “I love how my design turned out, I like how the speakers are not visible”.

Sally is an academic who likes to maintain a professional look and wears a scarf for religious reasons: “While at work, I find it uncomfortable to use headphones on top of my scarf and even more challenging to use earpieces as it gets tangled with my covered hair”. Supporting diversity and inclusive design, Soft Speakers inspired the Sound-Scarf application solution to embed ‘sound in a scarf’: “I used to think that no headphone designer ever considered a user with a headcovering. Now with this 2in1 scarf, I feel empowered.”

The Teacher-Teddy applications is based on a 7yo user who wanted a speaker that is “fluffy and squishy”. She drew a sketch of speakers hidden “inside [a teddy’s] belly”. She used it, not just as a speaker for her online classes, but as a proxy teacher that she listens to instead of the real (now virtual) one. When asked if Mr. Brown has now become like a robot she answered: “No, I love that you can squish it and hug it all night”.


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