"I've never seen anything like this," said industrial design and mechanical engineering Professor Stephen Sprigle. "And I've lived in New York!"
Just before 9 a.m. on September 3, Sprigle was helping students and families get ready to walk in the annual Dragon Con parade. In the corner of a downtown Atlanta parking deck he was assembling snowflake panels for a glittery "Frozen" cosplay.
Surrounding him were hundreds of elaborately costumed parade participants, filling both floors and the ramp of the deck. No less than three separate marching bands were playing the Star Wars cantina song. Outside, lining both sides of Peachtree Street, were crowds already three and four rows deep on the sidewalks. King of Pops stands were strategically parked on corners for what was sure to be a very sunny and lucrative morning.
And there was still another hour until the parade started. Bottles of water were passed around Sprigle's group and plans made to meet up in the Hyatt when the parade was over. The route is a mile long, and this was the first time the costumes would be on the road.
Sprigle was a little nervous, but there wasn't time to worry. He had to move five children with disabilities who use wheelchairs; their costumed parade partners; the children's parents; a team of Georgia Tech students; and the wheelchair cosplays to the front of the parade staging line.
"Here we go," he gasped.
Sprigle wanted to help people with impairments be a part of Dragon Con's world-class cosplay scene. A long-time researcher and advocate of assistive products and technology, his idea was to use wheelchairs as an advantage in cosplay, thereby reducing their stigma. As part of the Rehabilitation Engineering and Applied Research Lab, Sprigle organized cosplay fabrication, he gathered participants, communicated with parade coordinators, and helped ideate and create the designs of all the costumes.
Sixteen Georgia Tech volunteers helped design and create the cosplays. This group included College of Design alumni, as well as undergraduate and graduate students (even doctoral students) from industrial design, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering.
Sprigle's motley crew became incredibly close over the course of the summer. Since they required a banner to walk under for the parade, they chose to call themselves "DragonWheels." Ultimately, DragonWheels became a support system for the parents involved, a symbol of inclusive cosplay, a project that could become a hallmark for the School of Industrial Design, and a group that Dragon Con hopes will return.
"I would like to see this be a regular feature in the parade," said Dragon Con spokesperson Dan Carroll. "When we heard what (DragonWheels) wanted to do, we were enthusiastically behind it. This is good for the community, it's good for the kids, it's good for the designers, and it's a beautiful addition to our parade."
In the face of such accomplishment, Sprigle said, "It's all Kara." Kara Kenna, a second year Master of Industrial Design student, oversaw building and sewing the costumes.
"I really learned a lesson in time and people management," Kenna said. The project started with designers meeting the families to discuss what kind of costumes they wanted, she said. Designing took a few weeks. "Because everyone was busy, there was a lot of coordination involved to get designs approved, parts ordered, and testing done. It didn't get stressful until three weeks before the parade, when we realized some things weren't fully figured out or finished," she said.
Kenna walked with the cosplay teams and some of their parents in the Dragon Con parade. The experience was transformational, she said. While she was closely watching the costumes, the children and their ambulatory partners for signs of distress (nothing broke or went wrong the entire route, a true accomplishment for a group in this parade) she felt the love and acceptance of Dragon Con.
DragonWheels members who walked in the parade said they could actually feel a wave of cheers as they made their way down Peachtree Street. It was so loud and energetic that many team members got emotional. The children cosplayers were affected too -- their posture straightened, their faces light up, and they even waved back to the enthusiastic crowd. Spectators in similar costumes called out to get the DragonWheels cosplayers' attention.
"The response was very, very sincere," said Carroll. When Dragon Con parade spectators saw DragonWheels for the first time, Carroll said cheers and applause were spontaneous. "Not just for the kids who had the guts to get out there and march in that parade, but also for the students who designed the modifications and the costumes. The modifications and the costumes were just stellar."
That's no small feat. Both Dragon Con and Atlanta are known as home to some of the best cosplay and cosplayers in the world, Carroll said. Even Atlanta's mayor recently made a correlation between the city's prosperous film industry and the fact that filmmakers can draw on a talent pool here that cut their teeth at Dragon Con, he said.
When it was all over, Kenna said some of the children wanted to go again.