How Things Work: Smart clothes

Students lugging iPods and cell phones around campus may soon be a thing of the past. In the near future, some clothes will be equipped to play music and receive calls.

This futuristic concept of computerized clothing, also known as “smart clothing,” is rapidly becoming the next new phenomenon in fashion, with manufacturers scrambling to emulate the newest in climate-controlled clothing and trendy computerized accessories.

Among the smart clothes becoming commonplace today is climate-controlled clothing, which can adapt itself to surrounding weather conditions. Current commercial applications of climate-controlled clothing operate using fibers designed to stretch or curl in a certain direction when heated. Manufacturers can create fabric that adapts itself to weather conditions by overlaying clothing with many tiny strips of these fibers; the clothing can become cooler in warm weather and warmer in cold weather.

When the fabric is heated up, the strips curl outward, increasing airflow throughout the clothing. Conversely, when the fabric is cooled, the strips straighten out and form a solid layer, preventing loss of heat and moisture. These fabrics have proven invaluable for activities that involve changing temperatures, including mountain climbing and skiing.

Similar fibers have also been harnessed for more interesting uses. By coloring the sides of the fibers differently, manufacturers can use the curling of the fibers to reveal a different color. This has led to the creation of color-changing clothing, which can change color depending on the temperature of the surroundings, or even its wearer’s mood.

The latest innovations in smart clothing, however, remain a guarded secret, perhaps for military applications or competitive sports. One successful implementation of smart fabrics has been put into practice by Canterbury of New Zealand, the manufacturer of the famous All Blacks’ rugby team uniforms. Canterbury’s outfits create a negatively charged electromagnetic field that can speed up both the delivery of oxygen to the muscles through the bloodstream and removal of wastes such as lactic acid. According to testing done by Loughborough University in the U.K., these outfits can improve output power and increase recovery by up to 2.7 percent.

Despite the many advancements in fabric design, embedded electronics in clothing have yet to be commercially implemented, as issues such as freedom of movement and cleaning remain difficult to solve for fragile electronic systems.

One fabric under investigation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, called “silk organza,” has been utilized in India for decades, but its electronic uses are only now becoming apparent. Silk organza is woven with silk thread against copper-wrapped thread, which gives it excellent conducting properties. When interwoven with strips of insulating material to avoid the copper threads touching, the threads can act as long parallel wires running along the fabric, almost like a computer ribbon cable.

Materials such as silk organza lend themselves to many interesting applications, such as connecting sensors for various bodily reactions such as body temperature and heart rate, in addition to processing units that can display this useful information pertaining to the wearer.

A different application of interwoven fibers uses optical fibers rather than copper thread, and is being tested in military clothing today. Beams of light run across the body through these fibers, and when the fibers are broken, the system is able to pinpoint the location of puncture in the material. This can be used to determine the exact point of gunshot wounds in order to expedite treatment.

The forerunners in consumer electronic clothing come in the form of electronics embedded in running shoes, which are already being used to monitor running speeds and distance in athletics. Among other more esoteric creations, Levi’s has already created jeans with a built-in iPod docking station, and Spytek has developed shirts with hidden cameras inside.
The future of smart clothes is limited, though, unless manufacturers can find a way to make them washable — nobody wants to wear the same shirt for weeks on end.