How a startup built wearable billboards

Robert Tu taps away at his smartphone, squinting down at it in the grey light filtering in through the windows. He then stands still, allowing me to see the green letters that have started moving up his shirt.

“Hello IT World Canada,” they read.

“OK,” he says, adding I can take a picture, but it may be better to record a video to show off the full effect. He looks at my smartphone camera, smiling while introducing himself, with the green letters seemingly floating up and disappearing before repeating themselves again.

Tu is the founder of MeU, a three-person startup that builds what are essentially LED panels that stick to fabric. For example, user can put billboards on under their shirts, under dresses, or even on the inside of a bag to showcase a message or graphic in flashing lights. Launching an Indiegogo campaign on Monday, Tu introduced his company at WEST, or the Wearable Entertainment and Sports Conference in Toronto on Tuesday.

Tu has been working on the idea behind MeU since 2013, while he was a graphics design student completing his thesis project at OCAD University. He realized what a pain it is to wait for the next streetcar or bus in Toronto, because not every stop features a sign indicating when the next one will show up.

While smartphone users can check the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) schedules by launching an app or heading to the TTC website, not everyone has a smartphone or mobile device. So Tu, who also has a degree in engineering, designed an LED panel that can be displayed on clothing, making it easy for anyone to be on top of the transit schedule.

Before he graduated in June 2013, he expanded the idea, taking it to Imagination Catalyst, the school’s incubator. Then he decided to form a company around it, later naming his design the MeU Square.

Each of MeU’s LED panels contains 256 LED lights, arranged in a pattern of 16 by 16. The lights can display any colour in the colour spectrum, and they can also be configured to show off animations – for example, a flashing design. As a way of protecting the panels, each one comes in a fabric pouch, which can be attached to clothing using a Velcro strip.

Aside from the logistics of strapping panels onto clothes,Tu says the real power behind these LED panels is the ability to customize them. Each LED panel comes with a developer kit, allowing developers to build on top of it using Arduino, an open-source programming language. The panels connect to a smartphone using Bluetooth, allowing wearers to change colours, messages, and so on by using an iOS or Android app.

(Image: MeU).
(Image: MeU).

Essentially, that means developers can essentially build whatever they want using MeU Square, Tu says.

“What we’re really curious about is to see what people will do with the technology,” he says. “People can program it, they can do whatever they want – they can hack it, and come up with crazy ideas that we haven’t been thinking about.”

That’s where things get interesting for marketers, Tu adds. For example, they could build in social plugins to display messages from Facebook and Twitter – something MeU did as a custom social campaign during events earlier this summer. The company gave models dresses to wear with MeU Square panels on them, allowing them to feature tweets with event-specific hashtags at OneEleven Tech Social in July.

(Image: MeU).
(Image: MeU).

Then there was the campaign that MeU proposed for the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, where people could act as “human slot machines,” Tu says. People wearing shirts with the LED panels underneath could allow passersby to pull on their arms, mimicking the way casino-goers play at the slots.

“I think what could be really interesting is … the attention that it captures, essentially,” he says, adding at sponsored events, MeU’s panels have never failed to attract notice. “Just the people that stop and stare has been incredible.”

“It’s been so challenging to cut through clutter right now in terms of getting the message across. And I think marketers and advertisers have always been creative, but they have to be even more creative and pushing the envelope in terms of that experience, if they’re going to produce for their audience, so that it leaves a memorable impression and hopefully translate into conversion down the road.”

MeU is currently crowdfunding its product through Indiegogo, with its campaign running until Dec. 5. A limited number of WEST conference-goers will be able to pre-order a MeU Square panel, the developer kit, programming cable, hook and loop tape and instructions for $190, though the regular perk is set at $270. MeU hopes to start shipping in August 2015.

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Candice So
Candice So
Candice is a graduate of Carleton University and has worked in several newsrooms as a freelance reporter and intern, including the Edmonton Journal, the Ottawa Citizen, the Globe and Mail, and the Windsor Star. Candice is a dog lover and a coffee drinker.

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