Photo courtesy MIT Media Lab
The development of digital yarn opens up the opportunity for an entire computerized clothing industry. In the next decade, we will likely see a wide range of digital apparel enter the consumer market. Several companies are already exploring the possibility of putting us in designer computerized clothing, including IBM, Levi, Philips, Nike and SensaTex. In Europe, Levi is already test marketing the musical jacket developed by the MIT Media Lab.
Levi's musical jacket is made with the silk organza and is controlled with an all-fabric capacitive keyboard. This keyboard has been mass-produced using ordinary embroidery techniques and conductive thread. The keypad is flexible, durable and responsive to touch. A printed circuit is used to give the keypad a sensing ability, so that the controls react when pressed. The keypad can sense touch due to the increase in capacitance of the electrode when touched. The keypads are connected to a miniature MIDI synthesizer that plays music. Power could be supplied by a parasitic power source such as solar power, wind, temperature or mechanical energy from turning wrists or walking. Further out, researchers are looking for fabrics capable of generating power as they flex.
Another all-fabric keyboard being developed by the MIT Media Lab uses conductive and non-conductive material sewn together in a row- and column-addressable structure. The final product looks like a quilt that's been pieced together in a square pattern. The quilted conductive columns are insulated and form the conductive rows with soft, thick fabric, like felt or velvet. Holes in the insulating fabric allow the row and column conductors to make contact when a user presses down on the keyboard. Shirts and other clothes using this keyboard can be thrown in the washing machine just like an ordinary piece of clothing.
Photo courtesy MIT Media Lab
While the musical jacket is an example of how computerized clothing could be used for entertainment, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a practical, medical purpose for this technology. The smart shirt can monitor both heart and breathing rates by using optical and electric conductive fibers that are woven into the fabric of the shirt.
The smart shirt project at Georgia Tech was originally financed by the U.S. Navy, beginning in 1996. At that time, the shirt was being designed for soldiers in combat, so that medical personnel could find the exact location of a bullet wound. To pinpoint the location of bullet penetration, a light signal is continually sent from one end of the optical fiber to a receiver on the other end. This fiber is also connected to a personal status monitor worn on the hip. If the light from the emitter does not reach the receiver inside the monitor, this signals that the soldier has been shot. The light signal then bounces back to the point of penetration, which helps doctors find the exact location of the bullet wound.
Photo courtesy SensaTex Inc.
Wearers of the device attach sensors to their body, pull the shirt on and attach sensor to the smart shirt. The shirt also tracks vital signs, such as heart rate, body temperature and respiration rate. These measurements are monitored in two ways -- through the sensors integrated into the shirt and the sensors on the wearer's body, both of which are connected to the monitor on the hip. Because of it's capability to monitor these vital signs, the shirt is being marketed as a way to prevent sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Athletes may also be interested in it to track their body's performance during training and competition.