Tuesday, 29 June 2010

How to look smart: textiles with intelligence

Although cybernetics, the truly personal interfacing of man and machine, has long been discussed in both fact and fiction, far less attention has been paid to futuristic clothing, Star Fleet velour and shiny foil suits aside. The past decade has seen a proliferation of technologies aimed at developing clothing that does more than just provide comfort and display. The creation of smart textiles that react to both external environmental factors and the wearer's body promises a wide range of uses, from health and medicine, via sports, to ultra-portable information technology.

In 2008 the smart fabrics industry in the European market alone was estimated to be worth over three hundred million Euros. To this end, the European Union created a research cluster with the quasi clothes-related if slightly tortuous acronym SFIT, or Smart Fabrics, Interactive Textile. With a growth rate forecast at 20% per year the sector shows great promise - and how much of it will revolve around consumerist infotainment gadgetry is anyone's guess. As an example of what is already available, the British company Peratech produces a wide range of electro-conductive smart fabrics under the Elektex banner. MP3 players and BlueTooth devices are amongst those incorporated into their clothing, and I assume it won't be too long for some form of television or viewing capability is built in, perhaps utilising sunglasses or head-up display technology.

The increasing miniaturisation of electronics and materials in general will undoubtedly lead to clothing and accessories constructed of elements arranged at a nano level. Recent developments in computer interfacing, such as the roll-up keyboard, suggest it may not be too long before people are wearing items more intelligent than they are (although in many cases that wouldn't be too difficult!) Much has been written about technology at the nano scale, including research into creating nano-bots that can be injected into the human body to destroy infections or fatty deposits. At a rather less invasive level, it is easy to see that smart fabrics could be developed for the slow release of pharmaceuticals or to monitor heart rate, respiration etc. The New Zealand company Zephyr have already developed two products: the kinky-sounding bio-harness and the shoe pod, both containing sensors woven into the textile. When combined with data storage components the products can record physiological information. No doubt the military are keeping as keen an eye on these developments as much as professional sports concerns.

Speaking of the armed forces, in February this year the UK's Ministry of Defence awarded a research grant to the British firm Intelligent Textiles Limited with the aim of developing fabrics that could back up if not replace military field equipment such as radios. Combined with innovations such as the aforementioned roll-up keyboard it seems strange how late has attention been paid to these developments. Clearly, there are benefits for many areas, although whether companies will persuade their executives to include such items in their travel luggage may appear a step too far in the work-life balance threshold.

Back on the health front, the simplest use of smart materials may be fabrics able to aid allergy sufferers, or at least warn them of impending doom (I would dearly love a built-in pollen detector!) Research is also being carried out into fabrics that change colour if they reach a pre-set level of ultraviolet radiation exposure within a time limit; clothing with this non-permanent photo chromic technology might prove to be of immense value to the Australasian market, with the southern ozone hole predicted not to heal for at least half a century.

One area you might expect to see high-tech developments, that of astronaut clothing, has received relatively little public attention apart from EVA (i.e. spacewalk) suits. In the 1970s the Soviet Union developed the elasticated Penguin suit to help cosmonauts exercise their otherwise wasting muscles on long-duration flights. A more high-tech approach is now being developed since the European Space Agency engaged the Danish firm Ohmatex last year to design and manufacture a 'smart sock' to monitor muscle activity via built-in sensors.

Another European venture is the international Biotex project, which aims to develop fabrics with built-in biosensors that can analyse the pH levels and mineral balance of the wearer. One civilian use would be analysis of energy expenditure, extremely useful for those on diets - as in, yes, you can have another chocolate biscuit, you've used up extra calories today. Indeed, the American NuMetrex range of clothing already has something along these lines, along with heart rate and pulse monitors, although from what I've read they are as yet of more use to healthy people than those with cardio-vascular conditions.

On a slightly more esoteric note, transatlantic research teams involved in the recent 2010 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences have developed a concept for interactive clothing that responds to the wearer's emotional as well as physical state. The Wearable Absence project aims to deliver complex, personalised audio-visual content when certain physiological conditions are met. Although early days, this could prove to be incredibly useful technique for therapy on the move.

However, it is not all plain sailing for the smart textiles industry: recent studies have suggested that certain smart materials incorporated into clothing, from the tiny silver particles used in anti-odour socks to more exotic substances such as carbon nanotubes, may pose long term health or environmental risks. There have even been discussions in the European Parliament Environment Committee for a ban on some of these materials as part of a wider interest in their adoption in various types of consumer goods.

But ultimately, smart materials are just too good to be abandoned altogether, even if there is a multitude of teething problems ahead. But once these issues are ironed out (geddit?) many of us will no doubt wonder how we ever managed to live without clothes that could power our personal entertainment and phone devices, supply satNav data, monitor our vital signs, offer emotional support in times of stress, and be of course completely self-ironing.

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