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The Reebok Checklight, which flashes to indicate blows to an athlete's head.
Researchers are perfecting ways to make computing equipment disappear altogether by using electronic textiles and smart clothing embedded with metallic fibers, microprocessors, sensors, batteries, and other electronics.

Consumers have always embraced the idea of smaller, thinner, easier-to-handle computers. Part of the motivation to create more-compact form factors has been to create devices that are increasingly practical to use in everyday life (although there’s also an unarguable "cool factor" associated with small, sleek devices). Researchers are now taking the concept a step further: they are perfecting ways to make computing equipment disappear altogether by using electronic textiles and smart clothing embedded with metallic fibers, microprocessors, sensors, batteries, and other electronics.

The idea isn’t new. For the last couple of decades, engineers and others have pondered the possibilities of producing textiles and clothing that incorporate computing functions, ranging from textiles that change colors to garments that contain built-in heart-rate monitors and other sensing capabilities. Now, the concept is evolving: "We are moving from hard-shelled fanny packs and backpacks that people wear outside the body to computing devices that are woven directly into fabrics," observes Tom Martin, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Virginia Tech University.

Consider: Adidas sells a sports bra with electrodes for a heart rate monitor woven into the fabric. Nike has engineered sophisticated sensors into some of its shoes. UK retailer CuteCircuit offers shirts, dresses and accessories that step into the realm of "interactive fashion" using sensors and LED lights. Another firm, MC10, has developed a skullcap that can detect blows to the head of a football player.

"The field is advancing rapidly and it promises to revolutionize an array of sectors and industries," says Angela McIntyre, a research director at IT consulting firm Gartner Inc.

Clothes Get Smart

The goal of producing lighter, smarter wearable computing devices has already led to an array of innovations. Workers wear smart badges in offices; heart patients strap monitors around their chests; warehouse workers, the military, and emergency workers sometimes rely on smart goggles to view important data and do their jobs hands-free. Yet there’s been little integration with existing devices and systems, and smart clothing remains more a novelty than a mainstream concept.

However, McIntyre says the possibilities are enormous. For example, placing biosensors in clothing could benefit the elderly: "If a person falls, the clothing could trigger an alert to first responders." A different type of sensor might detect heat, chemicals, or toxic substances in the atmosphere and alert an emergency worker by switching on LED lights or changing the color of the garment. Similarly, sensors in a shirt or cap could let an athlete know when it’s time to sip water, or when air pollution levels are too high for outdoor exercise.

Many of these capabilities revolve around medical and fitness tasks. MC10, for example, has engineered the Checklight for apparel maker Reebok. The $150 skullcap is equipped with multiple sensors that can detect a blow to the head; a light display, which extends just below a helmet, shows the severity of the impact and logs the number of blows. The company has also developed a "biostamp," a sensing sticker flexible enough to move with the body, which could be used for a wide range of medical, fitness, and health monitoring tasks.

Martin says clothing embedded with sensors could also aid in medical rehabilitation and physical therapy. He has experimented with textiles that detect movement and can provide accurate measurements about range of motion. "The idea is to provide feedback and determine whether a person is doing exercises correctly by plotting the movement on a computer and comparing it to the desired motion," he says. Such a system could be used at home and serve as a virtual therapist. One firm, MetaMotion, has already introduced such a motion-capture system.

No Worse for the Wear

As electronic textiles and smart fabrics filter into the marketplace, they are likely to impact everyday life in significant ways. Gartner’s McIntyre says smart clothing will connect to smartphones, smartglasses and the Internet of Things–and in some cases, will replace existing devices. Smart garments will tie into social networks and become part of a larger grid of pervasive electronic devices that sense the surrounding environment and provide feedback.

Martin says it already is possible to embed powerful ARM class processors in textiles, as well as an array of sensors, microcontrollers, and chips. In many cases, he says, "The software applications run on the garment but the data is transmitted to a laptop or other computing device, where it can be further analyzed and displayed." Martin foresees a smart clothing ecosystem that includes downloadable apps: "A person would add features and functionality as we already do with today’s smartphones and tablets."

For now, the biggest challenges revolve around manufacturing soft but rugged textile versions of integrated circuits and transistors, and then integrating components, sensors, and batteries in a way that makes wearable computing systems usable and functional. Researchers are exploring the use of nanoparticles, optical fibers, metallic yarns, battery sheets made from lithium, and various other materials that can create integrated circuits and computing functionality within clothing. Researchers are also exploring ways to power these electronic textiles with ambient light, noise, and motion.

Not surprisingly, there are also privacy and security issues to sort out, McIntyre says. Smart clothing could create new security risks and hacking dangers.

Yet, the field is advancing rapidly and new innovations continue to appear. Over the next decade or so, McIntyre predicts, "We will begin to see smart clothing become a part of our lives. Smart fabrics will become more sophisticated, high-quality and practical."

Samuel Greengard is an author and journalist based in West Linn, OR.

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