Smart Fabrics and Wearable Electronics: The Future of Clothing
“Intelligent” or “smart” clothing is part of an exciting technology that involves building computing, connectivity, and sensing abilities into materials people are comfortable wearing. Some of the latest products in this area are very fashionable, lightweight, and look no different than other clothes. In some cases, the electronic circuits that make up the brains of the wearable computers and sensors are sewn in. In others, the circuits and other components are literally built from conductive yarn and thread that makes up the clothing. The possibilities are amazing and limitless.
Right now, as devices get smaller and smaller, we often find ourselves with a different electronic device in each pocket. Each technological advance shrinks these devices and integrates them with one another. It’s only logical that as these portable devices that connect us, give us information, and allow us to be mobile get smaller and more powerful, we can eventually find ways to integrate right into the clothing we wear. Right now, technology has not progressed to that point, but this article will cover currently available forms of smart fabrics, or intelligent clothing.
There are actually three distinct types of smart clothing:
– Passive Smart: Where the clothing “reads” or senses the environment or something about the person wearing the clothing. Wearable sensors fall into this category, with examples including built-in GPS, clothing-integrated baby breathing monitors, and clothing that gives feedback about potential changes in weather.
– Active Smart: Where clothing not only senses the environment, but also reacts to it. Examples include: Clothing that changes density depending on the temperature outside, jackets that store solar energy that can be used to charge cell phones and cameras, and even built-in sensors that can guide pinpoint massage to a wearer that is regulated depending on his or her level of stress.
– Active very smart: Where clothing has built in computing and or intelligent sensing capacity. Examples include sleeves that function as keyboards for a small handheld device, clothing that can function like a powerful calculator or PDA, and shirts that can store information through a built-in fabric keyboard and send it via Bluetooth to a computer.
Other classifications of intelligent clothing include “phase change” and “shape memory” materials. Phase change materials literally change aspects such as their density in reaction to the environment, in order to increase comfort or functionality to the wearer. These clothes might become denser when it is cold and more porous when it is hot, for example. Shape memory materials can change from a temporary deformed shape back to an original shape. They can preserve a comfortable and loose fit regardless of changes in heat and moisture levels.
In the future, all of us might be wearing intelligent clothing that senses when we are having medical problems, gives us the ability to charge electronic devices while on the go, and even allows for basic computing. We might not need different clothing for different seasons due to phase change and shape memory technology. There might be means of communication and general connectivity built in to our clothes. This emerging technology is exciting and soon to take over the consumer market.
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