Our Clothes are Getting Smarter
By Mike Hanlon
June 4, 2004
Clothes have done much more than serve as protection from the weather for tens of thousands of years. Over the last few millennia they've been worn as statements of rank and fashion, adapted for countless specialised uses from military combat to surfing and bee-keeping, cut and tailored in every conceivable shape, colour, size and fabric, and become signposts for entire cultures.
Along the way clothing manufacture has embraced and developed many new innovations, and it seems a natural progression for micro-electronics and other emerging 21st century technologies to find their way into our wardrobes next to the zip-off tracksuit pants and the Moon-boots. The result: clothes are getting smarter.Smart clothing will both enhance its primary role as body covering and extend its functionality to keep us connected, entertained, relaxed, safe and healthy. Fabrics and designs with built in temperature control mechanisms will merge with invisible add-ons like mobile phones and MP3 players, sophisticated medical monitoring systems integrated into shirts will save lives and clothes may even provide us with our daily vitamin supplement.
Keeping us warmer
Developments in temperature control technology include Airvantage Adjustable Insulation from Gore. This system utilises the exceptional insulation properties of trapped air by including a layer of inflatable chambers within the fabric that can be filled with air when its cold or deflated when less insulation is needed. It takes about three breaths to inflate the Airvantage vest via the adjustment valve and there's a psychological benefit in wearing a thicker garment despite its lightweight. The downside is the danger of tears or punctures. There's a repair kit available just in case.In an example of the crossover between traditional streetwear and high-tech applications, Gore, best known through their Goretex waterproof camping products, also utilise fluoropolymer materials for surgical implants, industrial filtration, dental floss and as an insulator for high-speed wire and cable. In terms of high-tech fabric, Gores latest light-weight "Wind Stopper" line is designed to be worn next to the skin and uses four distinct layers to draw moisture away from the skin and promotes quick evaporation - another step towards a Star Trek inspired future where everyone wears jumpsuits all year round.Adidas have also launched a new moisture management system based on a layering principle that draws moisture away from the skin.
The Clima Apparel range includes different grades of weather protection and temperature management. Microfibre garments keep the wearer cool while exercising by dispersing heat away from the body's critical heat zones and highly insulated garments use the same system but also trap the heat in for extreme conditions. Nike's approach to the issue is slightly different. Their Sphere technology uses a series of circular indents in the fabric to create the air cavity critical to the design of garments for a variety of purposes.Another tact is taken by the North Face - their MET5 Jacket integrates a heater into the clothing.
Though never released in Australia, the MET5 has been on the market in the US since January 2001 and utilises a battery driven heat source to generate warmth through a network of microscopic conductive fibre elements woven into the jacket. The control unit is located in the chest pocket so it can be adjusted without unzipping the jacket. The system can be recharged via maintain a 12-volt car cigarette lighter or solar charger and once the battery is removed, the jacket is fully washable.
Health conscious gear
Clothes are also starting to address health issues. Levi Strauss plan to launch anti-handset radiation trousers - aimed at protecting the wearer from the possible health risks of EMF radiation from mobile phones - under their "Dockers" label in the UK next year. In Germany scientists at the Hohenstein Institute Textile Research Center have developed shirts that ease rheumatism pain via a built-in balm along with tights that feed vitamins A, B and C directly into the legs (complete with replaceable vitamin tablets) and a fabric that combats dermatitis.
In Japan, scientists are investigating possible applications for an inflatable muscle suit that could be used to improve limited movement and, according to Annanova, researchers at Texas A&M; University and Penn State Chemical Engineering are going to the next level of adornment with a smart "tattoo" capable of warning diabetics of low glucose levels.
Continuous, real-world medical monitoring is already possible through the Vivometrics LifeShirt system. Instead of the limited "snapshot" of health derived from a standard examination, the system measures more than 30 parameters of cardiopulmonary function during a patient's normal daily activities and provides the clinician with a far more comprehensive analysis. This "health movie", as Vivometrics describes it, gives insights into the interrelation between the patient's state of mind and their condition as well as the effects of any medication being used.
LifeShirt's core technology is the respiratory monitoring system Respitrace, which is embedded into the 225g washable "shirt" along with other sensors. A recording device is used to store the data before its processed, analysed and summarised for display in a number of formats and optional peripheral devices are available to measure blood pressure and blood oxygen levels. The system has been approved by and is commercially available in the E.U. and Canada. Although VivoMetrics is not currently selling the system in Australia, they plan to market it here in the future.
It's hard to tell where wearable computers end and computerised clothes begin - Gizmag has looked at some of the latest innovations in previous issues including the Xybernaut head-up display system (see article 1163 at gizmag.com), and the Philips/Nike collaboration on portable audio players designed to be worn during athletic activity.
Perhaps the first example of wearable computing or WearComp was invented by Dr. Steve Mann at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). After two decades of research Mann first demonstrated the "Wearable Wireless Webcam" in 1994 by transmitting images from a head-mounted analog camera to base station via amateur TV frequencies where they were reconstructed in a web browser in near real-time.Mann is accredited with providing the basis for the MIT Wearable Computing Project which now includes Mithril, a leading platform in next generation research that will shape the wearable computers of the future. Undertaken at the MIT Media Lab to develop completely new techniques for interfacing with computers, the research is being conducted on a broad front embracing human interaction, artificial intelligence, hardware engineering and software development for health and communications applications.
Components envisioned by the project include a vest containing multiple CPU cores for storage and wireless connectivity and a "Body Bus" which supports a wide range of sensors including cameras, microphones and custom equipment such as GPS receivers, accelerometers and biosensors aimed at boosting the key research goals of the project: human-computer interaction and context awareness that will enhance the computer's ability to measure the surrounding environment and react accordingly.
The research is also being applied to smaller wearable platforms like sunglasses. The "Memory Glasses" reminder system is designed to out-perform PDAs because reminders are associated with context - where you are and what you are doing - making it a proactive rather than passive system that will know what to do when you get into the car or arrive at the office.
The vest prototype pictured appears heavy with wiring as it was created before Bluetooth and other reliable wireless solutions were operational. Advances in wireless technology will obviously impact on the design but their will still be power-supply and privacy issues that may be difficult to overcome in the near future without the use of hard wiring. Mithril is an architectural project developed on the Linux platform and as such doesn't have a specific product or market in its sights. Lord of the Rings fans might recognise the word play - the vest that saves the hero Frodo's from an Orc spear in the Mines of Moria is made from a magical substance called mithril.
Wearable displays have already gone in other directions that head-up systems and wired sunglasses. France Telecom R&D; has invented a screen made of woven optical fibres that can be integrated with standard textiles. This mean's that your t-shirt, scarf or backpack will enable text, artwork, static or animated images, music videos and advertising logos - probably the most viable market entry point for the technology - to be downloaded and viewed on an in-built screen that will also act as a wireless interface to communications networks like the internet. A prototype design unveiled the Avantex 2002 international trade show is intended to attract interest from various sectors including emergency services, the media automotive manufacturers and furniture designers.
The ultimate goal of this research is to combine high-level voice recognition with the visual component to produce true "hands-free" connectivity and do away with any need to carry a mobile or PDA - you just wear it.
Voice recognition development at France Telecom R&D; is highlighted by the "phone jacket" concept. Currently in testing, the prototype features a lightweight (100 g), flat telephone sewn into the jacket's lining and a microphone in the collar. The user can dial using voice commands or access a keypad in the button flap but otherwise the device is hidden from view.In addition to its collaboration with Nike on wearable MP3's and performance monitoring electronics targeted at athletes, Philips' Design and Research arms have released "New Nomads", an illustration of potential applications for new textile technology.
These include "No Kidding" - interactive clothing for children that gives parents piece of mind via on-board mobile phone and mini-cam and enhances playtime for kids by creating scenarios like virtual hide-and-seek where kids can digitally track their friends - and "In the Mix", which will allow DJ's to escape from behind the desk and participate with the audience while still controlling the beats through fully wearable controls.
Sensors in "e-clubwear" as it's called, might also give the audience a chance to "feel back on the DJ", interacting through lights and sounds, but hopefully not destroying the ambience in the process.This emphasis on relaxation as well as information is best displayed by the New Nomads "Feels Good" kimono that contains a conductive fibres able to relax the wearer by sending small electrostatic charge into the body. Levels of stimulation are controlled by a device inside the pocket or are adjusted automatically based on feedback from bio-sensors measuring the degree of relaxation.
The JoyDress or VibraDress by Italian stylist Dr. Alexandra Fede is another feel-good application to emerge from Avantex 2002. Designed as an evening or career dress, the garment conceals a series of flexible "vibrapads" that can be user controlled or activated randomly to massage, relax and promote a feeling of well-being.
No matter what guise they take on, Smart Clothes will soon become the rule, not the exception. According research from the Venture Development Corporation (VDC), the wearable computer market is expected to top $US550 per annum worldwide in 2005, up from an estimated US$70 million in 2001. This is supported by findings from Gartner Research indicating that 60 % of the population in developed countries are likely to own a communicating garment by 2010.