Despite the allure of flashing lights, one of the most interesting aspects of wearable technology is the innovation going on at the material level. Smart textiles will transform the way we think of clothes, what they do and what they are.
Textiles will change everything. For example, one of the main hurdles for 3D printed clothes is that 3D printers right now are having a hard time creating a material that is a thin and supple as wool — so printing clothing has to wait for appropriate materials to be developed. While wearable electronics are gaining in popularity, tons of research is going on to ensure that wearable electronics are more than just shirts with gadgets stuck to them.
A few of the intriguing areas of research are textiles that plug clothing into the larger Internet of Things, textiles that turn clothing into power sources, and, perhaps most interesting, textiles that use new technologies to mimic the natural world.
Clothing already communicates. It communicates who we are, who we want to be perceived as being, our group affiliations. But down the line there’s a strong possibility that our clothing (or some people’s clothing, at least) will communicate with its surrounding environment. According to Tom Martin, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and co-director of the E-Textiles Lab at Virginia Tech,
“The most exciting development is the potential for textiles to sense and respond to their environments and situations,” Martin says. “In particular, integrating sensors and computational devices into fabrics will enable the fabrics to provide a much richer set of capabilities than is currently possible. These electronic textiles (e-textiles) will allow us to build smart garments, as well as home and office furnishings that look and feel like their everyday counterparts while being able to sense our presence, monitor our health, and dynamically adapt to our individual needs.”
One example of this are textile sensors developed by researchers at the University of Arkansas, which monitor wearers’ cardiac signs and communicate them to doctors and hospitals, no matter the location. Sports brands are leading the way in mainstreaming this tech. Stella McCartney’s Performance Sports Bra, designed for Adidas, uses “conductive sensing fibers” to monitor runners’ biorhythms. After the success of Nike+, sports brands have been quick to get into quantified-self products, and are the first to really be promoting smart textiles.
The quantified self is great, but what’s really interesting is products like this bracelet, which control a building’s environmental conditions. Clothing that does this is probably really far down the line, but will be fascinating in the ways it blurs the line between the individual and space, surface and surrounding, etc.
Military design leading the way
Military design needs to consider more infinitely more variables than everyday where, so that’s where a lot of innovation in fabrics is happening. This material, designed for the British Army, that conducts the energy to powers soldiers’ gear. The company behind this fabric, Intelligent Textiles, is also designing a fabric keyboard, which is awesome. Textiles designed for the military are, in many cases, more evocative of science fiction, like invisibility cloaks. And invisibility cloaks can now trap rainbows, which could lead us to finally finding the Leprechaun’s gold.
What is more fascinating is the idea that clothing will one day not be a path to a device, but a device itself. You see a lot of this idea today in designers making clothes that light up. For example, Luminex weaves fiber-optics into fabric to create clothes that light up. The clothing is powered by microchip, which controls the color. And that’s where you see the larger implications of stuff like this.
Learning from squids
The most intriguing movement in smart textiles is biomimicry. Perhaps the coolest example of this is the Micro’be’, because it’s a dress made out of wine. The design uses living microbes that grow as a side-product of the wine-making process and “ferment” them into designs. Here is a picture; the whole dress is wine; it is amazing:
Maybe one of the most enduring legacies of today’s experimental textiles will come from squids. Researchers at the University of Bristol created a material that imitates how a squid changes colors. The researchers created a material that mimics the muscles that allow squids to change color instantaneously, allowing them to create camouflaging materials.
This is one of the things that can can lead to a real practical disruption in mainstream apparel. While clothing that communicates with the environment might be be sort of specialty item, the ability to change your clothes’ colors on-the-fly would be huge. Imagine this scenario: you go out to a business lunch and spill coffee on your white shirt. Since you don’t have a change of clothes back at the office, you just turn that white shirt black.
That’s awesome. Squids are awesome.