Troy Robert Nachtigall grew up in 1970s Wyoming, where at the county fair he won “Best Canned Vegetable in the State” four years running (in the childrens’ category). But he also won the “Fashion Review” contest in 1993 by showing up in a suit of his own design, black and purple and without lapels, at a county fair at which  gingham was the greatest statement of style. Clearly, Troy was destined to move somewhere more fashionable, like New York, Paris, or… Fucecchio.

Fucecchio is a small town in Tuscany, just under hour’s drive from Florence, next door to Santa Croce sull’Arno, the leather manufacturing heart of Italy, and a stone’s throw from Vinci, birthplace of Leonardo. Troy greets me at the door of his and his wife’s top floor apartment in an old palazzo wearing an Arduino chip on his chest, Iron-Man style, and holding his 9-month old baby. The view is great from up here and conversation logically turns to the question I had been harbouring since we made this appointment: “Why (the heck) Fucecchio?”

From Wyoming to Fucecchio

“Fucecchio? Hackers are born in places like this!” exclaims Troy. I start to realize that from Wyoming to Fucecchio is not as large a step as from Wyoming to New York, a move that Troy had taken to go to college (fashion design), but after which he chose Florence in order to be closer to designers and producers. He elaborates:

“New York was great for school, for design, for venture capitalists to help you out later on, to understand how the world works and meet people from different places, but makers need a quiet place to get things done. In the City you are always out partying. It is a good place to be when you already have a bunch of projects that are ready, but if you want to get things done you need to live elsewhere. Tuscany is a great place to do that. There are a lot of productive companies are around here that can do things for you: I live in the leather district, with about 400 companies around me in a 2km range. If I want to laser cut something I just walk down the street. And in Tuscany people who are actually making your stuff live here, you have breakfast with them in the morning, you can talk technique, and it’s not like work, it’s just two guys passionate about the same subject and shooting the shit. The other irony of living here is that you would think it was the last place on earth to find wearable technology designers, but Silvio Campilli (of Grado Zero, who has designed for NASA and Formula 1 drivers), lives down the street.”

Troy Nachtigall is, in fact, a wearable technology designer himself. For the uninitiated, I asked for a definition of this field: “the integration of technology into the clothes and accessories that we wear.” The genesis of his career in wearable tech was back in Wyoming, on his seventh birthday, or so Troy recalls:

“I liked sewing from a very early age, I made shirts for my teddy bears at age 5, and mom was afraid that I would break her very nice machine, so she got me my own sewing machine for my birthday, which is in December. Then came Christmas and another gift; I had dyslexia so my parents got me a computer.”

The computer – since you want to know – was an Apple IIe. Received at the same time, they sat, first boxed, then unwrapped, on the same table. What many would see as disparate fields became, for Troy, naturally linked. Some of the best opportunities in small-town America at the time were offered by the local 4H Youth Organization activity groups; for Troy’s classmates, the animal raising group was popular, but, being less inclined towards cows, he joined the sewing circle (one of two boys). On the internet, Troy saw clothes he wanted but that were not available in the area, so he made them. He also joined the computer group and in middle school was building telegraph machines with 555 circuits and coming up with communication protocols. It was a slippery slope from here to dangerous geekdom.

A historic sewing machine backlit with green LED lighting in Troy's studio

After school in New York, Troy moved to Florence where he worked his way up the ladder to Head Designer at Emilio Cavallini, a company that, to say the least, specializes in knitwear. This knowledge came in handy in the collaboration with Riccardo Marchesi of Plug’n’Wear (see our article on their kit for the Arduino store), who Troy says “is an engineer but knows something about fashion too – that’s why we get along.” The two’s research has been focusing lately on building low cost textile sensors, essentially integrating technology into fabric rather than applying it afterwards. Progress has been made in creating thinly coated yarn (with just two atoms of silver) that conducts electricity without much altering the material’s initial characteristics.

Wearable technology prototypes

3d printed objects and conductive woven fabric in Troy's studio

Troy’s told me about many fascinating projects and he’s dug a few prototypes out of his studio for “show and tell”. A lot of things have wires sticking out of them. I ask him about the wires, the unfinished aspect of so many things. Troy responds with a metaphor:

“Doing wearable tech is like trying to build a transparent house but needing to go back to the brick maker and asking him to make transparent bricks.”

The process is long. He’s been wanting to work in this field for ten years, but there were not materials available on the market yet. Hence the research with Marchesi and the collaboration with local companies… to build the glass bricks of the wearable tech industry. Bricks that have a tendency to break – these soft circuits have to be worked around carefully in order to develop systems that don’t break. There have been some small victories, but another five years might be needed to see the fruits.

I ask to see some fruits. Troy brings out three prototypes, two of which are things he has been working on in the past week. He describes them in his own words:

arduino clip

arduino clip

“This weekend I made a clip to hold Arduino chips onto any fabric. The Leapfrog holds the Lilypad Arduino, and Easel holds the Leonardo chip. It can make you look like a computer controlled drone if you stick it in your t-shirt but of course it can be a brace to hold the chip into any cloth, since I was thinking about washability and how we need to be able to pop out the electronics. The inspiration was the Pop Swatch.

jump jacket

jump jacket

“The jump jacket: a motorino vest (which started as a motorcycle jacket) that lights up in different ways depending on if you accelerate, turn left or right, and flashes if you are braking, using an accelerometer. It is supposed to increase street safety because I had a few friends in bad motorcycle accidents. It is called jump jacket because it also works if you jump up and down, like if you are in a club!

Intelligent slippers (prototype)

“These Smart Slippers are prototypes of shoes that understand how you are walking.  Nike has done things like that but they are for athletes. I want to do something that if you allows you to monitor and adapt how you walk – to be more punk or more elegant or whatever you want. It uses inexpensive textile sensors to analyse how you are touching the ground, which result in lighting up the top, and gives different visual feedback for walking types. It is all integrated into a beautiful laser cut pattern into felt, though I am working on a leather version."

Commercialization and Collaboration

Troy

OK, these are some fun concepts, but what about selling actual products? Troy breaks down some of the problems he’s had, and I realize that many Makers likely have the same issues: “It has been difficult to commercialize wearable tech and hacked projects because of CE regulation problems. I have worked on getting components into SparkFun but haven’t been able to yet get out a full-on product. The problems are: marketing, getting people to understand what it does, and regulation.

There is hope for the future: Nike is working a lot on wearable tech, and Apple has been hiring up numerous specialists in the field. It is just a matter of time before they produce something. And that will increase public awareness of the field as well as bring the cost of components down, elements that Troy sees as truly positive, rather than threatening.

This open and collaborative outlook has led Troy to some interesting collaborations. He was recently invited to participate in Fendi’s Fatto a Mano per il Futuro project, in which artisans are given materials and time to make prototypes that are displayed first in stores, then in a museum in Rome. He made a series of lamps covered in Fendi leather, with a layer of textile sensors integrated under the leather that provide different types of feedback. Are collaborations with big companies like this important for Makers? Troy answers:

“What can I say. Big brands will come to you as a maker, even an open source maker. Take Massimo Banzi [of Arduino]: companies come to him and ask him to do big installations around the world, in airports, stores, public spaces. Whether or not it is important for you as Maker to do this – and the money is nice – it is important for companies to align themselves with makers: we keep people dreaming, interested, we show them things they have never seen before.”

Makers in Italy

Troy is an “Italian Maker” despite being a “foreigner”. He shares a set of values with Makers in this country as well as a geography, but he has a privileged view of the field, the country, and its problems. “This country has production capacity, but lacks a business class that ‘gets it’,” says Troy. Having worked as a third shift graphic designer in New York – truly the city that does not sleep – he proposes that one way for Italian industries to stay alive is to allow Makers to use their instruments in a second shift to manufacture products that do not provide competition to them. Italy, and Tuscany in particular, has the space, expertise, and technology to innovate, but real innovation, and especially venture capitalist investment in it, are lacking.

MakeTank asked Troy two final questions that we will be asking all of our interviewees – and we hope for readers’ answers too:

What should Italian Makers focus on now?

“Publish! Get your project up on the internet. People will find you.”

One piece of good advice.

“Don’t let your ideas rot. If it is just in your head and not on the table, it is rotten.”

With an attitude as good as this, he’s bound to succeed.

See Troy’s products for sale on MakeTank and watch his short video interview.

 

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