Today, in university labs around the world, materials scientists, computer programmers, and fabric designers are working to advance robotic clothing at a rapid pace, bringing us closer to a reality where the clothes we wear help to maintain good health or improve daily life.
“We’re sort of at the pre-iPhone announcement [stage]said Yoel Fink, professor of materials science at MIT. “It’s very, very exciting.”
In June, Australian researchers created robotic textile fibers capable of automatically moving fabric. Last year, MIT scientists made computer-programmable yarns and built fiber batteries using battery gels that can embed themselves in clothing and power robotic textiles. In a sign that the technology is approaching maturity, the intelligence community announced in July that it was looking to develop smart clothing for soldiers and spies.
The researchers said their work is at a turning point and could soon usher in an era where clothes act more like a computer, sensing how your body feels and telling your clothes how to help you. Over the next decade, scientists say, customers can expect a range of futuristic offerings: pants that can help lift the elderly or disabled; sports socks which can promote blood circulation by automatic compression; maternity clothes that could passively track fetal heart rates to improve pregnancy outcomes.
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Textiles have been around for centuries. Interlocking weaves of yarn, cloth, and yarn have enriched empires and remained relatively unchanged for decades.
In recent years, companies have started to launch smart wearables, which connect to cellphones. Google – through its Jacquard project – has partnered with brands like Levi’s, Yves Saint Laurent and Adidas to put sensors in denim jackets, backpacks and shoes, giving users instant access to their phone, sliding the sleeves to change music. Fashion tech start-up Wearablex has built yoga pants that emit vibrations to improve your posture, also via smartphone.
But these connected clothes are just the first wave of smart wearable technologies, the researchers said, and the technological advancements they’re working on will create clothes that can do so much more.
At the University of New South Wales in Australia, researchers are creating fabrics capable of changing shape. Than Nho Do, a lecturer at the school, said his team had created tiny silicone tubes, the size of wire and inspired by muscle fibers, which can weave themselves into sheets of fabric. These tubes, triggered by electronic or thermal stimulation, can make the tissue take on various pre-programmed shapes.
But challenges remain for Do’s team, including making these robotic tubes smaller so they can weave easily with yarn and other fabrics without adding bulk, he said. Currently they are 0.5mm in diameter and aim for 0.1mm, which is about the size of an average syringe needle tip. The wire can measure on average about 3 to 4 mm.
However, to make smart clothing truly transformational requires computing power inside the fabrics, so they can monitor physiological signs and drive technology, Fink said. Researchers are trying to build computer fabrics that could process data generated by human skin and transform it into commands that clothing obeys.
“The software is going to determine what services you receive,” he said, “and this thing is going to look like your t-shirt and pants that you’re wearing right now.”
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To that end, Fink and other MIT researchers have created fibers with hundreds of silicon microchips to transmit digital signals — essential if clothing is to automatically track things like heart rate or foot swelling. These fibers are small enough to pass through a needle which can be sewn into the fabric and washed at least 10 times.
Others at the institute have also created rechargeable lithium-ion batteries in the form of an ultra-long fiber that can be woven into fabric, powering textiles without an external power source.
But one of the biggest challenges facing the field, Fink said, is design. “What could this fabric look like?” he said. It should “look exactly, feel exactly, wear exactly, wash exactly like the fabric you are wearing right now”. He noted that his lab partners with industrial designers from the Rhode Island School of Design to tackle key questions.
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Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio, professor of mechanical engineering at Yale University, agreed that there are still many challenges to overcome before smart textiles “reach their full potential”. It will be difficult to make these garments, filled with fibers and technology, durable enough to withstand multiple wash cycles, she said.
Kramer-Bottiglio noted that size will also be a challenge. “The extra bulk of specialized fibers could make wearable smart textiles uncomfortable or difficult” to put on or take off. Additionally, she added, researchers will need to find the most optimal way to place the robotic fibers in tissues and ensure that the power sources are light.
Even so, she says, researchers will find a way forward.
“Recent breakthroughs,” she said, “point to a not-too-distant future where smart textiles will be part of our everyday wardrobe.”