Researchers Create Fabric That Lets Them Play Tetris on Their Arm

Breathable electronic fabric could be a breakthrough in smart clothing

Wearable technology is already a thing, but so far we've only seen glimpses of smart clothing. This breakthrough in ultra-thin, breathable electronic fabric that's easy to produce could put smart clothing back on the fast track to your wardrobe.

Electronic Fabric
 Yong Zhu / NC State University

Smarter clothing inched one step closer to consumer reality this week after researchers at North Carolina University introduced their new, ultra-thin, stretchable, and gas-permeable electronic material and showed how they could use it to play Tetris.

What is smart fabric? The idea of electronic fabric is not new. A few years back Google launched Project Jacquard and then, with Levi's help, introduced a jean jacket with embedded smarts. Unfortunately, the technology wasn't thin or stretchy. This new material is different in that it can incorporate electronics while remaining comfortable to wear, and still allowing, for example, sweat to evaporate off the skin.

Inside the innovation: In a press release and paper, NC University Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and co-author of the paper on the fabric, Yong Zhu, detailed the technique they used to create the special fabric. First, they used a special method to make the ultra-thin stretchable polymer with an even distribution of holes (for breathability). For the conductivity, they dipped it in a nano-wire-infused solution. Heat was then used to seal the wires in place.

"The method we used for creating the material is also important because it’s a simple process that would be easy to scale up,” Zhu said in the release, and added, "The resulting film shows an excellent combination of electric conductivity, optical transmittance, and water-vapor permeability."

Games and more: In a pair of demonstrations, researchers showed how the fabric could be configured for touch control of an on-screen game of Tetris. They then demonstrated how sensors embedded in the fabric could be used to take an electrocardiogram.

Something you can really wear: While embedding electronics is cool, it's been done before. The real innovation here is comfortable smart fabric that can be worn for longer periods of time without, for instance, irritation because it's not wicking away body heat and sweat.

Bottom line: While most of us are happy to carry around our big screen phones, there are times where we want to leave behind gadgets, but not the smarts they provide. Smart fabric that can be embedded in everyday outfits (pants, shirts, socks, underwear, and undershirts) could bridge the gap between comfort and always-available technology.

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