Smart Clothes: Fashion for Geeks?


Many of you will probably have been blissfully ignorant of this, but in the past few weeks many of the world’s major cities have been flooded with fashionistas for the traditional fashion weeks. Here, designers pretend to be on trend, different, and innovative by copying 1970s and 1980s streetwear and adding some unwearable headpieces, while the majority of us continue to happy enough with a pair of jeans and a T-shirt.

Let’s be honest – you didn’t come here to read about fashion. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything interesting going on in the fashion world! In fact, e-textiles and wearables can make your clothes communicate with your phone, providing a unique way to interact with other people and potentially even save your life.

Project Lifewear, for example, focuses on electronics embedded in clothing that work together with the users’ mobile devices through bluetooth. In return, their smartphones or tablets are connected to the internet, building a cloud network with access to very detailed information about location and physiology in addition to application use and web history. Cloud management software can enable users to keep control over their data to prevent intrusion of their privacy and customize applications. Storing information and software online means that e-textiles don’t have to contain many complicated parts, improving their wearability.

Wearable electronics can be used as a pro-active display for mobile devices, using innovative display technologies – or less obtrusively the other way around, mobile devices used as a display for information collected by embedded sensors. All wearable electronics aim for interaction that comes naturally, and does not require a complicated list of instructions. Smart clothing can also support functions for inter-personal communication, by detecting changes in mood through body temperature or heart rate and giving haptic feedback using small electric currents to create pressure on the user’s body without requiring physical contact with another person. Anonymously collected information can be used for research. This information is not necessarily personal in nature, and could be environmental data – like the air quality where you happen to be wearing the garment.

An important application in these wearable electronics lies in the field of health and safety. Because e-textiles can sense physiological signs such as heart rate, temperature and breathing patterns, smart clothing can be used to automatically monitor recovering patients from a distance. Because they don’t need the fulltime attention of a nurse or access to an alarm system, these patients can become independent again much faster and return to their loved ones. Examples of this technology include the VivoMetrics’ LifeShirt, which monitors vital signs and helps to provide each patient with an individual approach, and the Georgia Tech Wearable Motherboard, which can be used in combat situations where it detects bullet wounds.

E-textiles have been intensively researched for about a decade now, but they haven’t been very commercially successful so far. As they haven’t even been embraced by innovative fashion designers yet, they might lack some aesthetic qualities at the moment – but wouldn’t it be cool if in the future you could use your shirt as a computer? You could turn your wardrobe into a network server and play games on your sleeve.

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