How Smart Fabrics Could Turn Clothes Into Computers

The ultimate foldable?

Key Takeaways

  • A newly developed kind of smart fabric could put a touchscreen on your sleeve.
  • The electronic fabric produced by researchers in China could replace many of the functions of a smartphone.
  • Manufacturers are developing many innovative fabrics intended to transform clothing into displays or computers.
Wavy cloth with electronic components embedded into the fabric

piranka / Getty Images

Foldable smartphones have become a hot item, but scientists have come up with a new technology that could make current models look rigid by comparison. 

A fabric developed by a team of scientists in China could replace many of the features of modern smartphones. The new material could have applications in communications, navigation, healthcare, and safety. It’s one of many smart fabrics being developed that promises to transform clothing and other objects into displays or computers. 

"Compared with the conventional rigid bulky or emerging thin-film electronic devices, the electronic fabrics are highly flexible, lightweight, and breathable," Huisheng Peng, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai and the lead author of a recent paper on the new fabric technology, said in an email interview. 

A Digital Map on Your Sleeve

The new fabric technology is solar-powered and combines conductive and luminescent fibers with cotton. It could be made into a garment and could be integrated with clothing. For example, the fabric could put a touchscreen on the sleeve of your jacket so you could access a digital map.

"The electronic fabrics may show different functions of harvesting energy, storing energy, emitting light, sensing, communicating, and displaying," Peng said. "Some of them, like batteries and displays, may be available in this year, and the others are under development and may be commercialized in a few years."

"Compared with the conventional rigid bulky or emerging thin-film electronic devices, the electronic fabrics are highly flexible, lightweight, and breathable."

The fabric created by Peng and his collaborators isn’t the only attempt to mix electronics and cloth. The smart clothing industry has been around for more than a decade and has produced gear such as Levi’s Sherpa Trucker Jacket, which allows you to control a mobile device through a wireless controller in the sleeve. There’s also a new running shoe by Under Armour called the HOVR Machina that gives you real-time feedback on your performance. 

A new generation of smart fabrics being developed by manufacturers like Apple and others could allow garments to do everything from monitor your health to keep you cool. 

However, one problem with applying circuits and screens to clothing is that it tends to be uncomfortable. MIT CSAIL researchers announced they’d developed intelligent clothes that can track subtle movements, even though they feel like everyday garments.

The researchers showed in a video demonstrating that their clothes could determine if someone is sitting, walking, or doing particular poses. The clothes could be used for athletic training, rehabilitation, or even monitor the health of residents in assisted-care facilities.

"Imagine robots that are no longer tactilely blind, and that have ‘skins’ that can provide tactile sensing just like we have as humans," MIT researcher Wan Shou said in a news release. "Clothing with high-resolution tactile sensing opens up a lot of exciting new application areas for researchers to explore in the years to come."

Make Your Old Jacket Smart

Your old clothes might even work as intelligent fabric. Microsoft researchers claim to have developed a method of turning traditional materials into interactive ones. 

The scientists used a recognition technique called Capacitivo, which can be integrated with fabric to identify the items placed on it. Capacitivo could suggest a meal to a diner after identifying the foods on the table or offer a drink recommendation. 

Innovative fabrics also could keep you cool in hot weather or while exercising. Researchers from the University of Manchester used the thermal properties and flexibility of graphene, which is only one molecule thick. The team demonstrated how it could electrically tune the ability of graphene layers integrated onto textiles to radiate energy.

"Ability to control the thermal radiation is a key necessity for several critical applications such as temperature management of the body in excessive temperature climates," Coskun Kocabas, who led the research, said in a news release. "Thermal blankets are a common example used for this purpose. However, maintaining these functionalities as the surroundings heats up or cools down has been an outstanding challenge."

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