Will your next smartphone be your shirt

Posted on: August 11, 2016 by Wolfgang Thronicke

Wearable technologies are advancing and smart fabrics will be ready for the customer market soon. This material will enable to weave IT into standard looking clothing. So in a way wearing a communication shirt will enable you to make calls to anyone on the net with multi-functional buttons allowing you to access even more functions.

The core of this development is to create conductive yarns which can be woven like any regular materials like wool, cotton, or other synthetic fibres. An inspiring undertaking is “Project Jaquard” for Google which allows to have cloth act as interactive surfaces controlling and be controlled by other components you wear. Of course, a very basic feature is that such shirts, jackets or trousers can be washed like regular clothing.

With different kinds of IT-gadgets woven in you are essentially creating smart fabrics for use in different application areas: For healthcare sensors and the cloth itself could detect various vital data like heartbeat, sweat composition, temperature etc. Because you wear clothes anyway, the need for additional devices to fiddle around with is significantly reduced. Along with this come interesting applications by detecting falls or injuries, or even attacks. So smart fabrics are not only providing energy or interconnection with attached “devices” and embroidered sensors but are themselves designed to work intelligently.

With specific coatings the fabric itself works as sensor. A fibre sensor has been already created in labs that is able to detect dangerous gases and can be integrated in standard garments to alert its wearer.

As with all wearable devices power supply is one of the key challenges, especially to balance functionality with uptime. Aside from traditional battery concepts (of course also woven into the clothing) energy harvesting are options. In such a “power shirt” the kinetic energy from body motion can be transferred in to electricity by approx. 4.65 microW/cm². Near joints this value is significantly higher, and the expansion and compression of the fibres can be exploited. Using the thermal gradient between the body and the environment thermal energy can be converted and used to drive wearables. Of course using integrated photovoltaic elements (solar fibre or else) also provide a source for energy. The drawback is that most of these technologies still have to leave the labs or really enter the consumer market.

So, back to the initial question, what about a shirt becoming your next phone? Right now, I don't think so. Look into your wardrobe, there are more shirts than you need phones. But we have already entered the age of functional clothes for sports or in healthcare. Therefore, in theses specific use-cases smart fabrics will most certainly play a significant role in the next years and they will merge or interact with current wearables.

But perhaps in some years ahead you may not need to go into a shop to buy a phone, but ask your grandma to knit it for you (with her e-textile fabricator of course).

Look out for my colleague Santi Ristol’s post over the next few weeks that explores how wearables are being used in sport to enhance both athletes’ performance and spectators’ experience of the action.

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About Wolfgang Thronicke
Chief Technology Officer and member of the Scientific Community
Wolfgang Thronicke is CTO, group and project leader in national and European projects in the German ATOS innovation centre C-LAB. Since 2012 he is member of the Atos Scientific Community. With a 12 year background he is expert for software engineering, project definition and management for public funded and commerical projects. His current work topics include industry 4.0, cloud, IoT, and AI.

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