As convention season heats up, we get a steady stream of fan tributes to various media characters in the form of elaborate costumes. While this is independently awesome, I'm particularly fascinated by just how much science, technology, and mathematics goes into design.

I don't get to many conventions — this summer I'll be visiting Comic Con in San Diego, returning to Dragon Con in Atlanta, and showing up at the first-ever Hawaii Con in Waimea — but when I do, I spend a fair chunk of time interviewing cosplayers about how they build their creations. I am riveted by the intersection of science and art; this is a small sample of the types of science projects I found in a single day of Dragon Con 2013.

Personal Lighting Displays

At night, the convention halls glow from personal lighting effects incorporated into costumes. The effects can be the addition of commercially-available products into a costume, or a more hands-on approach by integrating electroluminescent wire (EL wire) and even microprocessor controllers. In a single loop around a single lobby area, I found countless examples of glowing costumes, simple to complex:

Playing with Science and Technology for Fantastic Costumes

Jedi Avery [left]; Jedi Sephyroth [center]; Delek Ctofine and Tardis Hayj [right].

Young Jedi brother Sephyroth wielded manufactured lightsabers with built-in LEDs, while his older brother Avery accentuated his robes with flexible narrow-gauge EL wire. A group of otherwise-uncostumed women added LED hair clips to help locate each other in a crowd, while the Mandalorian Mercenaries' Atin Skorda incorporated the LED number plate from Star War's bounty hunter Boba Fett by installing panels purchased from Fetronics. In a tribute to Doctor Who, Dalek Ctofine and Tardis Hayj raided a wedding supply shop to find bridal gown LEDs with self-contained power supplies to add to their costumes with the minimal amount of fuss.

Playing with Science and Technology for Fantastic Costumes

Mass Effects attack droid [left]; bounty hunter [center]; Mandalorian Mercenaries [right].

Even just a hint of lighting can go a long way to making a more dynamic costume. Mass Effect's attack droid by Tali Belle Cosplay was constructed of a clear ball coated in purple stained glass paint. To provide the iconic lighting during attacks, EL wire is secured in place within the ball by zip ties, and powered by a single AAA battery. A single commercially-purchased plasma disc mounted on a bounty hunter's rifle brings a high-technology element to a simple construction, and as a self-powered unit, requires zero fuss install.

Not that working with EL wire requires a whole lot of fussing. The learning curve for adapting EL wire and LEDs into costuming is short and gentle: party-trolls Dim & Witt spent more time deciding on how to artistically place their newly-acquired lighting systems than learning how to connect, power, and control them. "The art is more complicated than the engineering," one of the trolls acknowledged while swishing his lighted tail. Their attitude was universal: Blue Kitty Cosplay made her first light-incorporating costume by wrapping EL wire and twine around a staff for Jack Frost from Rise of the Guardians without encountering any problems with the setup. The double AA battery pack is located at the base of the staff, painted to match, with a control switch activated by well-placed kicks.

Playing with Science and Technology for Fantastic Costumes

Jack Frost [left]; Dim & Witt [top center]; Elissa [bottom center]; Kevin Flynn [right].

Even graduating onto more complex rigs blending multiple lights and power sources was easily attainable for the dedicated costumer: Elissa was on her third year of incorporating lighting into her costumes, this time mixing EL wire and LEDs powered by AA battery packs, while Roger used approximately 38 feet of 2-inch wide EL tape to line Kevin Flynn's coat from Tron: Legacy. Hidden behind his coat is a battery and a transmitter converting 12V DC to 120 AC, the trickiest part of his entire rig. Combining basic lighting with other materials can make for surprising effects — Dave Raney of Dogface Designs invented glowing whiskers for a Halo Kitty helmet by lighting up acrylic rods with pink LED Christmas lights.

While most costumers are using repurposed holiday lights, camping LEDs, or simple EL wire with on-off switches powered by AA or AAA battery setups, some opt for more sophisticated microprocessor controlled constructions with elaborate interactive patterning. Professional animatronics specialist Mark Setrakian explained to me that microprocessors like Arduino and Raspberry Pi are an affordable way to play with lighting and sound automation, and experiment with remote control technology.

Playing with Science and Technology for Fantastic Costumes

Sushi Ushi [left]; Halo super soldier and Halo Kitty [right].

I found examples of people using both around the hall: Sushi Ushi used a Raspberry Pi to create sound-reactive lighting displays in her original design, so the lights in her fluffy tail dance to the constant convention drone, while Joshua Kane controlled the strand LEDs in his Halo super soldier costume with an Arduino processor. When asked about learning to use an Arduino, he praised Adafruit's kits and tutorials for simplifying the process, encouraging any other curious customers to start with them if they're afraid of taking the leap to microprocessors.

Roving Raves

Of course someone is always around to step it up a notch even from custom-programmed microprocessors running lighting displays. At Dragon Con in 2013, the next level of complexity was to wire up an entire self-contained entertainment system, free to roam around to an available space, set up, and throw a party.

Claptrap isn't a party-robot or a roving rave, but he's too cute to ignore. Rob Doran, 8th-grade physics and chemistry teacher, made a CL4P-TP General Purpose Robot (Claptrap) from Borderlands, out of a wood frame structure. Sound effects are provided by a speaker powered by a lithium battery and controlled by his smartphone, and a central glowing eye acquired from the mood lighting section of his local big box store completes the project. In a charming mix of technology new and old, the robot isn't robotic, but instead a marionette puppet manually driven via a series of connector chains and rods.

Playing with Science and Technology for Fantastic Costumes

Claptrap [left]; Party Hard Cart [right].

Self-titled Curiosity Engineer William Buckley has been iterating the Party Hard Cart with Boldar Studios as a self-contained music and light show, with occasional extras like laser light show, bubble machine and fog machine. The fog machine was removed last year as it had been too sloshy for the cart's constant traversals of the around the convention hall. The red-green-blue LEDs are sound-controlled and powered by a 12V battery, with one row's controller offset from the other to desynchronize the lighting patterns. The adjacent party ball is also sound reactive, but runs off the AC current supply for the cart, along with the 5V laser lights. The sound comes from a JVC unit with iPod dock, USB drive, CDs, and radio, and draws 28 watts from the cart power supply of 115 pounds of lead-acid batteries. When asked how a software quality assurance employee found himself constantly modifying his roaming rave, William confided, "Google is an amazing resource."

I found Felix Brand posing for photos while simultaneously capturing photos of his photographers. He incorporates a variety of technologies into his original design, one of very few I interviewed who used a smartphone as a controller instead of dedicated independent microprocessor. The EL wire and finger-tip lights were powered by four 9V battery packs, while the sound-reactive mask used a single AA battery. The shoulder-mounted Go-Pro camera captures his surroundings while powered by an internal battery, which he needs to recharge each time he empties the photo memory card. Finally, he has blue-tooth synched his iPhone to a speaker system, using USB cables to charge both during breaks from the convention.

Playing with Science and Technology for Fantastic Costumes

Felix [left]; Arc the Guy [right, credit Comstock]

DJ and performance artist Andrew Comstock is a mobile robot party as Arc the Guy, a Transformers-like suit augmented with flashing lights and speakers with the capacity to scroll through a preloaded playlist as he keeps the party going. His handler told me this is the Mark I suit, and had suffered a broken wire disabling his strobe lights earlier in the night. The entire suit is powered by a single one-pound lithium Ion motorcycle battery that can keep the lights and audio running for 2 or three hours. Arc the Guy gets hired to show up at events and parties outside the convention, an integrated sound-system/DJ/lights-show/dancer in one bedecked package.

Engineered Structures

While cosplayers will sweat, stumble, and suffer sore feet for their art, most try to pick materials that will allow them to create their vision without crippling them financially or physically. The consequence is exploring material science and engineering, with as much pre-planning as possible to minimize breakage or waste when working on a new design.

Playing with Science and Technology for Fantastic Costumes

An ode to PVC: the Enterprise [left]; Nine Tails [right].

Sometimes, cheap existing materials can be adapted for use: PVC piping is a popular option for structural support. Kara Rock uses lengths of 4" PVC pipe ball-jointed to 3" PVC connectors to articulate the long-limbed front paws of Ninetails from Pokémon. Her costume also includes 3-light LED strips in the eyes, powered by a DD battery. Smaller diameter PVC pipe is used in Debra's costume, the starship Enterprise from Star Trek, constructed of PVC and paper mâché, highlighted with battery-powered LEDs.

Engineering comes into play when assembling individual pieces into a coherent costume. Sticky Velctro is too weak for any joint that will take stress, but is cheap, accessible solution for stand-alone armour that just needs to go on and stay put, like an arm band. For large pieces where structural integrity is vital, brackets and connectors from the hardware aisle are repurposed. For example, after Chris Eppard used Pepakuri Design to take a 3-dimensional Warhammer model of Dark Angel into a paper folding pattern, he hardened cardstock paper with resin Bondo to create armor pieces, then secured bulky shoulder plates to chest plates with cheap and simple L-brackets.

Playing with Science and Technology for Fantastic Costumes

Dark Angel [left]; Chell [right].

Modification of existing technologies is prevalent in costuming. Chemical engineer Grace wanted to create a costume that mirrored the aesthetics of Chell from puzzle-solving Portal video game series. To build long-fall boots, she leaned on the expertise of her mechanical engineering friends. She started by chopping the heel off a pair of high-heeled boots, replacing it with a hand-shaped angled steel brace. While steel was necessary for strength for the weight-bearing heel, the side-panel structural supports are made from lighter aluminum, sheathed with moldable thermoplastic. The costume is accessorized with a commercially-available portal gun, used in the games to spawn traversable wormholes, and powered in real-life by three C batteries to create a variety of light and sound effects.

To create elaborate moulded structures when paper mâché lacks the necessary structural integrity, a heat-activated mouldable plastic is more suitable. Cosplayer and real-life bioscientist Cy Chase walked me through a work-in-progress for moulding with thermoplastics. The first stage is to create a form of the required body part – stuffed duct tape is a cheap, fast, easy solution. For shapes requiring only a 2-dimensional curve (like an arm sheath or leg band), Wonderflex can be heated and moulded around the form using any controllable heat source – hair dryer, heat gun, even an oven element if used cautiously. The thermoplastic activates at 150-170°F (70-80°C), softening the adhesive, while a layer of open-weave scrim provides flexible strength. For more complex shapes requiring a 3-dimensional mould, like a chest plate or shoulder cuff, Worbla is more expensive and requires slightly hotter temperatures (>194°F, >90°C) but is more flexible. Either way, once the plastic cools, it can be lined with craft foam trimmed and glued into place for better fit and improved comfort. The materials can be finished with paint – a skilled costumer can create a whole array of material effects through different painting techniques. For example, modge podge – a mixture of watered-down glue – is a highly economical way to create a hard, shiny finishing sealant. The end result is a custom-fit, rigid and, at a density approximately equal to water at 1 g/cm3, shockingly lightweight costume armour.

Algebra for a Better Ballgown

Cy introduced me to Julia Misa, who initially was at a loss for how science or engineering played a roll in her costuming. After discussing the algebra involved in constructing a full-bodied hoop skirt and crinoline and delving into how to construct a vial of Angel's Grace from the television series Supernatural in a complex, multi-step process of layers of paint and fixatives, accented with a bit of portable electronics, she relented that just possibly she was using a ridiculous amount of mathematics and chemistry without noticing.

Playing with Science and Technology for Fantastic Costumes

Ursula [left]; Otto and Victoria [right].

Julia isn't the only seamstress using mathematics in her sewing. After bumping into them in an elevator, Livvy Love and her husband Tomahawk Chunker took the entire ride to tell me about the mathematics of circle-ruffles. It had taken a whole lot of planning to figure out the ideal inner and outer diameter ratios to produce enough cascading ruffles evocative of tentacles when dressing up as Ursula from the movie the Little Mermaid while staying within a reasonable fabric budget. To finish the effect, the outer edge of each ruffle was reinforced with fishing wire to produce that extra bounce.

Sewing mathematics goes beyond ballgowns. Sarah Haney knew her Victoria costume would be incomplete without an octopus Otis companion, so mixed the mathematics of sewing with a bit of creative upcycling, thermodynamics, and materials science to create an insulated, food-safe cephalopod flask.

Heat Control for Helmets

Anyone in a full-face helmet has at least one battery-powered computer fan mounted inside the helmet, repurposed to bring a bit of fresh air and cooling into the confined space. Matthew, dressed as Transformer Optimus Prime, explains that although quiet and non-disruptive, CPU fans are also painfully underpowered for the task and require breathing-breaks. The rest of his costume took 9 months to tailor, modify, and hook in EL wire and camping lights. Beyond Dragon Con, he also takes Optimus Prime to visit his local Children's Hospital during Halloween so even children unable to trick-or-treat can see a classic cartoon and movie hero.

Playing with Science and Technology for Fantastic Costumes

Fallout soldier and vault hero [left]; Optimus Prime [right].

Encountering a soldier from the video game Fallout in the confines of a crowded elevator, I had to ask why his backpack sounded like a vacuum cleaner tackling a particularly gritty carpet. Frustrated after his small helmet fan provided insufficient cooling before giving up and breaking completely the first time he wore a costume with a helmet, Chris Cruzen upgraded for his next helmet. He built a portable personal air conditioning unit based on the same physics principals as swamp cooler. His backpack contained a fan blowing air through a wet sponge, so the evaporation of water vapour extracts latent heat, dropping the temperature. Although loud, the new helmet was much more comfortable. His companion Eric Crumpton the built the vault hero's Personal Information Processor (PIP-boy) from the same game using EL paper to backlight the screen, and borrowing a laser cutter at MindGears Labs fab lab (part of the MIT fabrication facility network) to laser-etch the acrylic panel overlay.

Playing for Science

Outside the direct application of science and engineering to building costumes, the fields are also inspirations for costumes. Science and engineering themes in costumes are easy to find, with tributes to Doctor Who and Star Trek in thick abundance. More esoteric selections like the hapless Kerbal Space Program engineers and cosmonauts, iconic science communicator Carl Saigon, and satellite Project Mercury personification require a deeper exploration of science's role in popular culture to successfully identify the costume.

Playing with Science and Technology for Fantastic Costumes

Project Mercury [left]; Kerbal astronauts and engineers [right].

Joyce Lanterman personified NASA's Project Mercury space probe, complete with a fascinator and hem of sparkling LED lights for stars. Programmers Justin Roberst, Ali Wallick, and Robert Spessard, and robotics doctoral student Andrew Melim embrace their love for spaceflight simulator game Kerbal Space Program by dressing up as the hapless test-pilots and rocket scientist. The helmets incorporate LEDs powered by two 9V batteries with an on-off switch.

As an irrepressible educator, I can't help but see cosplay as an amazing opportunity for learning. Although dressing up in costumes is certainly a form of creative play, the science, engineering, and technology driving the craft of costume creation opens a door to engage students. Calculating custom sewing patterns to minimize fabric waste is applied algebra, while building portable, strong structures with limited materials is a fun place for mechanical engineers to experiment with structural modification or develop new materials for at-home small-scale manufacturing. The desire for a reactive lighted tail can be the inspiration to learn the Python programming language, while access to tools and expertise at collective makerspaces allows even apartment-dwelling urbanites to construct their very own custom armour.

The engineering of constructing custom structures strong enough to last the marathon of events, with enough usability and comfort to last the long weekend, is a unique challenge. The increasing availability of microprocessors, portable lighting, and 3D-printing, along with access to professional tools at hackerspaces and makershops is impacting costuming, allowing for more sophisticated displays. Cosplay is not just an excuse for rogue educators to sneak in lesson plans that directly reflect student interests, but is a rapidly-changing field where the innovative costumer is getting greater access to a variety of tools and materials to realize their visions. I can't wait to see what new technology comes out to play this year!

Do you build costumes? What sort of science, mathematics, or engineering do you find yourself needing on a regular basis?

A mixture of real names and pseudonyms are used in this article based on the preferences of the people interviewed. All images credit Mika McKinnon, who really needs to partner up with a photographer next convention.