With cellphones hanging off shoulder bag straps, pagers hooked to our belts, digital cameras dangling from our necks, PDAs bulging in our pockets, and MP3 players clipped to our shirts, we're all beginning to look like electrogadget pack mules.
We have a more versatile and, we dare say, elegant alternative: e-textiles. Your shirt, coat, or sweater, even your carpeting or wallpaper, is the device. Conductive fibers woven into the fabric using standard textile techniques carry power to sensors, actuators, and microcontrollers embedded in the cloth. Software controls the communications inside the on-fabric network and can send radio signals using Bluetooth or any flavor of the IEEE 802.11 wireless standard to PCs and PDAs, and over the Internet.
Applications are astoundingly diverse. An Army commander, for example, could monitor a platoon of soldiers clad in SmartShirt gear developed by two of us (Jayaraman and Park) at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. The shirt communicates vital signs in real-time, and when all hell breaks loose on the battlefield, the commander sees at a glance who's been hit and who hasn't--and who is gravely injured and in need of immediate attention.
Closer to home, a fire chief could keep tabs on a unit as it enters a burning building. He could order his team out when the sensors they're wearing transmit data back to his command center telling him that the firefighters are inhaling hazardous fumes or too much smoke or that the fire is too hot to handle.
Imagine the boon to athletes. A swimmer stroking through the water, vital signs monitored by electrodes attached to wires hanging off her body like the tentacles of a jellyfish, would welcome a sleek, instrumented training suit. And five-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, who lost an estimated 6.5 kg during the first individual time trial of this year's Tour, could have used a racing suit dotted with moisture, temperature, and pulse sensors. Such attire could have warned the U.S. Postal Service team manager that Armstrong was becoming dehydrated as he was warming up. In turn, the manager could have ordered Lance to drink replacement fluids before he launched from the starting line on his way to a rare time-trial defeat.
Similar performance- and safety-enhancing garb has already been prototyped by Finnish researchers at Tampere University of Technology and the University of Lapland, and at outerwear maker Reima Oy in Kankaanpää, Finland. They developed a machine-washable jacket, vest, trousers, and two-piece underwear set for snowmobilers. The jacket is embedded with a GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) chip; sensors monitoring position, motion, and temperature; an electric conductivity sensor; and two accelerometers to sense impact. If a crash occurs, the jacket automatically detects it and sends a distress message to emergency medical officials via Short Message Service. The message conveys the rider's coordinates, local environmental conditions, and data taken from a heart monitor embedded in the undershirt.
O.K., you don't plan to join the Army, rush into a towering inferno, or compete in the Tour de France. You have no interest whatsoever in swimming and snowmobiling. Nevertheless, e-textiles are soon going to add functionality, fun, and style to whatever it is that you do like to do.
Just last May, German chipmaker Infineon Technologies AG, in Munich, and its partner, Vorwerk & Co. Teppichwerke GmbH & Co., in Hameln, unveiled a carpet that can detect motion--of unwanted intruders, for example--and also light the way to exits in the event of a fire. The carpet is woven with conductive fibers and studded with pressure, temperature, or vibration sensor chips, microcontrollers, and light-emitting diodes (LEDs) [see illustration].
Last year France Télécom showed off a display made of woven optical fibers that can be worked in with standard textiles. A T-shirt or backpack could display text and images, including video and advertising logos, and could be adapted for color-changing scarves and furnishings.
And for those of us who can't stand looking at the same décor day in and day out, International Fashion Machines, cofounded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology alumna Maggie Orth, is commercializing Electric Plaid wallpaper. And when she says electric, she means electric: a swatch now on display at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum's National Design Triennial in New York City slowly changes colors and patterns as conductive fibers heat and then cool threads coated in thermally sensitive inks.