Clothes that make the man modern
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.