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Cathy and Paul Dietz won GeekWire’s 2018 ugly sweater contest with their ‘talking’ dress. Cathy designed and knit the sweater in two days, and Paul created the parts to animate it.

When Paul and Cathy Dietz learned they could score free tickets to the GeekWire Gala earlier this month by winning GeekWire’s ugly sweater contest, the engineers got to work. In just two days, Cathy Dietz designed and knitted an entire Christmas sweater dress from scratch while her husband created the parts to animate it.

The result was perhaps the geekiest ugly Christmas sweater ever. It features two talking characters: Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Paul Dietz stopped by the GeekWire office to show off the sweater. Watch the video below to see his demo, and scroll down to continue reading about the geeky creation.

Here’s how it works: In the back of the sweater, a control box makes Santa and Rudolph’s mouths move. After creating an audio recording, Paul Dietz made the two characters “talk” by putting Santa’s audio on the right track and Rudolph’s audio on the left track. The circuit analyzes the power in the speech and drives the servo accordingly.

The sweater was a hit at the gala.

“I have never had so many strangers stop me to tell me how much they liked my dress,” Cathy Dietz said in an email to GeekWire.

This year’s Ugly Sweater contest was presented by The University of Washington’s Foster School of Business Master of Science in Information Systems, with three finalists chosen to present their creations live on stage in front of more than 800 attendees at the GeekWire Gala. 

A scene from the Ugly Sweater contest at the 2018 GeekWire Gala at The Showbox in downtown Seattle, Thursday, December 6, 2018. (Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire)

As part of the entry, Paul Dietz recorded a script for Santa and Rudolph:

Rudolph: Hey Santa, we made it to the GeekWire Gala.
Santa: That’s right, Rudy. Look at all the people.
Rudolph: It looks like a pretty geeky crowd to me.
Santa: Yes, they’re geeks. But the important question is if they’ve been bad or good.
Rudolph: They all look good to me.
Santa: Yes, most of them are nice, but none of the venture capitalists were willing to fund my startup, Reindeer Games.
Rudolph: That’s terrible, Santa.
Santa: Yes, they’re on my naughty list.
Rudolph: What’s a reindeer game?
Santa: You fly all over the world in VR, delivering toys.
Rudolph: That sounds kind of cool. Can I try it?
Santa: No, I won’t let you play any reindeer games.
Rudolph: Aww!
A control box in the back of the sweater makes Santa and Rudolph “talk.”

Paul Dietz is the chief technology officer of Misapplied Sciences, a Seattle-area startup developing what it calls “parallel reality technology.” He’s also a former Disney Imagineer. Cathy Dietz is an electrical engineer, and her background is in image signal processing.

In their spare time, the couple runs a program called The Animatronics Workshop, which encourages kids to use robotics for storytelling.

“Instead of having kids build robots that do some competition, we have them build robots that put on a show,” Paul Dietz said. “We’ve been doing this for about a decade now, and it’s been a great thing for helping kids explore the creative side.”

The Dietz’s had a lot of fun making their entry for GeekWire’s ugly sweater contest. Would they ever consider recreating the sweater, perhaps as part of a line of animated sweaters?

“I don’t expect so, but you never know,” Paul Dietz said. “You know, we’ve gotten the startup bug.”

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