Katy Perry's LED Bra is a Work of Pure Technological Genius: Here's Why
Katy Perry is first and foremost, a musician. And while that’s an uncontested truth, we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that she’s also a really, really good entertainer. Pick any one of her performances, and you’ll find a show so extra, so completely unrestrained in every aspect, it’s almost unbelievable if not for the fact that you’re watching it unfold in real time (like, remember when she flew into the night sky as a shooting star to close out the Super Bowl halftime show?). Understated and subtlety—not really her thing.
So of course, she had something equally, if not more extravagant up her sleeve for her Witness: The Tour that kicked off last September (and will continue to run until August 2018). She dreamed up an over-the-top line-up packed with larger-than-life motifs, including flamingos, dice, and lips; surprising antics, like an impromptu basketball game; and fun cameos, namely, Left Shark. But about a month before the tour was slated to start, she had another vision: to wear a light-up bra that would not only display cute moving graphics, but also song lyrics that would appear as she was performing.
And that’s how these three engineers-slash-miracle workers came into the picture to bring Perry’s vision to life: Dave Sheinkopf, James DeVito, and Dylan Fashbaugh. After having created Taylor Swift’s LED outfit for her 1989 World Tour two years previously, the trio banded together to found Smooth Technology. And for this—their second major project for a mega pop star—the three collaborated with Perry’s longtime stylist Johnny Wujek.
“Katy personally had this idea—a bra with an LED screen that could light up and send video to,” Sheinkopf says. “It was a short timeline, but there was never a point we didn’t think it wasn’t going to get done.”
There were a few challenges, of course, as one would expect given the nature of such a technically intensive task. The overarching objective, Sheinkopf explains, was to build something that could withstand the rigors of “being on a moving body, being on the road, being used every night, to make it both user-friendly and 100-percent reliable, and to ensure it works in a room where there are 50,000 other wireless devices in every audience member’s pocket.”
“The key to having a reliable and robust connection,” Fashbaugh adds, “is scanning radio frequencies to create a direct tunnel from the transmitter to Katy’s receiver.”
From there, the next major obstacle was finding a battery strong enough to power a piece of wearable tech that could compete with an insanely bright screen as a backdrop.
"The bra is in Act 2, with really poppy songs, like "Hot N Cold" and "California Gurls," and she’s standing in front of an 80 foot-wide, blazingly bright video wall, so it was a challenge to make [the LED bra] stand out just because of the amount of power behind her,” Sheinkopf says. “And the battery had to be small enough and comfortable enough for her to wear. James and Dylan spent two weeks researching batteries before finding one that was bright, reliable, rechargeable, environmentally friendly, safe.”
And finally, the last hurdle was timing. At its core, the bra essentially functions as a vehicle to deliver video, to mirror what’s playing behind her. That meant the Smooth Technology team had to work with Montreal-based video production company Silent Partners to coordinate on content. “But when we started testing it, the video played at a very slightly different speed—so for example, during "Hot N Cold," she had the words ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ popping up on her body off the beat,” Sheinkopf recounts. “So James and I had to dust off our eighth grade math notebooks, do some algebra, had Silent Partners print out time codes, and we sat there with stop watches to manually figure out timing.” The reason for this, DeVito explains, is because all microcontrollers have slight timing variations.
OK, so once they achieved this seemingly impossible undertaking (at least to us, non-engineers), it was just a matter of creating a wireless media player-slash-server to operate the bra (an engineering feat), finalizing the graphics that would be featured on the bra (a compromise had to be made on whether the bra should boast higher brightness or a higher resolution—brightness won out; so visuals, like peppermint swirls and lips, were deliberately chosen for maximum effect even at a lower resolution), and actually building the bra.
“There was only so much we could prepare beforehand, so we ended up having to bring almost our entire shop to rehearsals to design everything custom and to make sure it worked well,” DeVito says. “We brought 3D printers, circuit boards, everything.”
Designed with a 3D printer, the bra was built as a plastic case to hold the electronics, but it operated, more or less, like a standard bra. And once the video player was set, backups were in place (four additional systems were made—and everything’s modular in case one component broke, it could be easily replaced), and the sizing was corrected, all that was left was for the bra to make its debut.
“In the time that we were working on [the bra], our number-one goal was to make sure it worked perfectly, so we didn’t have the time to enjoy [what we created]—but once we got to see it live, it was so much fun,” says Sheinkopf, who admits getting a little misty eyed. “[The bra] definitely gets a cheer when it’s turned on, and it wound up becoming a larger part of show than anyone had anticipated.” (Perry wears the bra for the duration of five songs.)
And so does this make them officially Katy Perry fans?
They laugh. “We went from engineers to KatyCats,” Sheinkopf affirms.
“It was really incredible to be a part of such a giant production, and to see it at rehearsal and then with tens of thousands of other fans,” DeVito adds. “It was a pretty unreal experience.”