Clothes that make the man modern
Items you wear will be able to charge your phone, display tweets, track the path of an infection or monitor your heart rate – and the technology may be closer than you think, writes JJ WORRALL
FOUR YEARS FROM now it’s estimated that the market for wearable technologies will be worth in excess of €4.5 billion. Sensors are already being attached to medical clothing, headphones inserted into hoodies and belts built to help remedy dodgy backs. Yet the most exciting innovation in this space isn’t about attaching technology to your clothes – it’s about turning your clothes into the technology itself.
Achieving this goal depends on harnessing our energy. “It’s like that scene in The Matrix where Morpheus explains to Neo that humans are no longer born but are ‘grown’ to act as batteries,” says Prof Lewei Lin from the University of California at Berkeley. “That’s sort of what we-re trying to do”.
The less apocalyptic reality behind Lin’s vision is that he and his team of researchers at the Berkeley Sensor and Actuator Centre are working with fibre nano-generators which, when combined with clothing, convert the energy of bending or stretching your arm into electricity. Through the piezoelectric properties (referring to when a strain, force or pressure is converted into an electrical charge) of the nano-generators, it’s possible that enough power can be created to charge devices such as smartphones or MP3 players carried within the clothing.
Lin is still at the theoretical stage of this process though, while across the country at Wake Forest University in North Carolina (WFU), Prof Dave Carroll estimates he’s about a year or so away from a commercial product of similar design.
His research has resulted in Power Felt, a fabric based on carbon nano-tubes woven onto flexible plastic fibres to create thermoelectric properties which use both motion and body heat to create electricity. With a prototype T-shirt created – and adorned with the WFU crest and a small iPhone charger lead – the last few months have seen “literally every one of the biggest clothing manufacturers in the world” descend upon his lab.
As these companies contemplate investing in the product, he says the question he gets asked the most is not about the devices that can be charged by the shirt, or even about how the technology works, but does it come in any other colour?
“The composites involved are black, we can’t help that,” he laughs and while he has pleaded with the companies in question that black is a slimming colour after all they won’t budge. “They’re willing to put a bunch of money into the product – not necessarily making it more powerful but changing its colour. I understand though, it’s their business.”
For Lin to realise his theories he says a lot depends on the desire and the funding from possible investors, but he adds that the key to full-scale production is to make the clothing affordable.
This is why Carroll’s thermoelectric work at WFU’s Centre for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials has attracted so much interest. With the nano-composites involved only making up 5 per cent of the weight of the prototype T-shirt, the rest of it is actually the normal materials that go into fabrics, costs can be kept down. By using relatively few carbon nanotubes to give the fabric thermoelectric properties, Carroll admits this also means “it’s not the most efficient it could be, but that’s the whole point”.
“The reason it isn’t [more efficient] is because it can’t be, we can’t afford to make it that way. It means the actual cost differential to a normal T-shirt is relatively small and that was done on purpose.”
Numerous researchers and clothing companies have dipped their toes into this market with somewhat more conventional methods.
In Madrid, scientists at Universidad Carlos III unveiled their own intelligent T-shirt, packed with sensors, which uses wireless networks for bio-monitoring of hospital patients, though it relies upon a device that’s separate from the T-shirt and carried in a patient’s pocket.
Again using sensors, ATT is developing clothes that can monitor your vital signs. Finnish company Myontec has taken the bold step to embed electromyographic sensors into underwear. Aimed at athletes, these sensors record data on the how hard an individual is working their leg muscles.
Last month saw more than a million people visiting YouTube to view footage of “the world’s first programmable T-shirt”, created by London design-house CuteCircuit. Called tshirtOS, and created by company co-founder Ryan Genz, it incorporates an ultra-thin LED screen, a camera and microphone. The shirt is wirelessly connected to a smartphone, allowing it to display tweets as well as post photos to Instagram.
Much like those approaching the clash of electricity and clothing in a more scientific manner, the main stumbling block for Genz relates to costs.
He talks about creating a demo of a product called the HugShirt, which recreates the feeling of getting a hug, in 2006 and it being named as one of Time magazine’s best inventions of that year.
However, with the HugShirt not ready for mass production due to the costs involved they’ve had to “hold enthusiasm for the product at bay”.
Both the HugShirt and tshirtOS remain at prototype status then, until the company can find the means to make them more affordable.
Council of Irish Fashion Designers chairperson, Eddie Shanahan, says he is wary of such innovations, saying that often it’s a case of “bordering on entertainment as embellishment. The other thing is that that type of technology won’t always fit with fashion sensibility which changes every six months.”
While Carroll is enthusiastic about innovations such as tshirtOS, he admits that to a certain extent it’s “window dressing” when compared with the type of innovations he and other researchers are trying to achieve.
Prof Werner Blau, who is based at Trinity College’s Department of Physics, has worked with Carroll in the past and agrees with his colleague.
“Some of the those designs are interesting ideas though,” he says, before adding that the majority of innovation within the wearable technology space over the next few years will take place in the US, due in no small part to the concerns of the US military.
“I’m not sure a project [such as Carroll’s] would get funding here in Ireland but I think in America it’s strongly driven by the military. Soldiers are fed up with carrying around lots of battery packs, so if the clothes could provide power that would be fantastic.”
Carroll and Lin agree with the point, with the latter saying that research into “biometric and kinetic energy production” by soldiers’ clothing has been a recurring topic in his university for nearly 20 years.
For the moment at least, Carroll says he’s concentrating on the commercial market rather than creating army wear, and excitedly tells how Power Felt can already be used in the lining of an iPhone case to add 10 to 15 per cent more battery power.
“What youre going to see in the next few years is clothing becoming the electronic gizmo itself and those gizmos will become networked,” he says.
He cites the idea of clothes eventually using nano-composites such as those in Power Felt to monitor respiration, heart-rate and oxygenation of a patient’s blood, while in hospital, a concept which can be enlarged to become a web of “interconnected networks” of “smart clothes” which allow researchers to understand a population’s response to the introduction of a flu epidemic for example.
Indeed, should an infection make its way through a hospital, Carroll says smart
clothing could then “not only monitor this, it can also talk to other clothing so that it can figure out where the malicious organism is going within the hospital and figure out who’s transmitting it. Clothing then literally becomes the nodes of a computational device.”
After that, police officers, firefighters, fishermen, mountaineers and even military personnel, could also benefit from clothing that can cheaply transmit location, health status, temperature and other statistics while not using intrusive sensors he adds.
Carroll even says these types of smart fabrics could be used to replace materials in cars or airplanes to run radios or air conditioning via the heat and motion generated by passengers simply sitting in their seats, not to mention being used in the lining of a roof to power household appliances.
“If it’s used as part of building a house, you could run a refrigerator off of it. It’s the ‘why not?’ factor, in all those instances you’re using fabric anyway so why not use this.”