Clever clothes

In future it won’t be simply a case of what you’re wearing, but how intelligent the clothes are.

Sick of carrying around a mobile phone and a laptop? Want to improve your tennis technique? As mobile technology comes to play an increasingly dominant role in people’s lives, the next wave of computing is focused on developing soft, wearable technology and devices.

A new generation of computerised textiles and clothing is being developed that will be able to communicate via the web, sense movements, mood or medical conditions, and even adjust according to the weather.

Gadgets and sensors are being integrated with fabrics to create clothing for work, sports or leisure activities, equipped with the intelligence of portable computers. These systems could ultimately replace or complement PCs and laptops with wearable computing networks that will act as intelligent assistants.

Wearable computing, otherwise known as intelligent or smart textiles, exploits advances in computer miniaturisation, wireless technology such as Bluetooth and web-based networking. Developments are being aimed at applications as diverse as leisurewear that will monitor runners’ breathing or stride, allow doctors to monitor patients’ vital signs or alert air traffic control if a pilot is taken ill or in danger of falling asleep.

Leading companies such as Levi Strauss, Nike, Philips, Du Pont, and defence and motor industry component suppliers are teaming up with universities and industrial research teams to create futuristic fabrics and applications.

This week UMIST’s new William Lee Innovation Centre announced it was researching protective garments, babywear and sportswear, as well as knitted switches, electrodes and keyboards. The multi-disciplinary research team’s technologists will work alongside fashion designers to develop the clothing.

IT research house IDC estimates that the market for wearable computer systems will be $600m (£420m) by 2003. US consultancy Bear Stearns forecasts the market for portable information devices will reach $3 trillion (£2 trillion) by 2005, but only a proportion will be truly wearable.

Early versions of wearable computers from IBM and Xybernaut are worn on a belt and hook into a web-based network. They are used with a small display or headset, for hands-free operation, for example by engineers at Bell Canada and Fedex air operations. But moves are under way to remove the computing from external boxes and weave it into the fabric of clothes.

Zurich-based academic research organisation ETH is integrating microsensors into electronic textiles and clothing, and with the Massechusetts Institute of Technology Lab has developed a wearable computer called Weararm that works in conjunction with a head-mounted display. Dr Paul Lukowicz, head of the wearable computing laboratory at ETH, says: ‘The vision is to create mobile computers that will become an integral part of our everyday lives and outfits. They will be wearable, always operational and equipped to deal with a wide range of situations.’

Its researchers are evaluating ultra-low power communication devices for wearable systems with environmental and ‘context awareness’, which includes location sensing and information about the user such as breathing rate and the motion of their limbs.

Philips Electronics and Levi Strauss introduced the first wearable electronics garments two years ago. Each jacket in the Industrial Clothing Design range contained a network of wires that allowed synchronous control of a Philips GSM mobile phone and MP3 player using a unified remote control. This ‘personal area network’ approach could ultimately be adapted to include other equipment as required by users.

The jackets were developed by a multidisciplinary team of textile designers, electronic engineers and designers based at Philips Research in Redhill, with Italian designer Massimo Osti. But with fully equipped jackets costing about £600, sales proved slow. However, a second spring/summer range has been launched in Europe, and Philips has signed a new collaborative development deal with Nike.

Collaboration with Levi and Nike has so far involved the integration of conventional devices with sportswear. But Philips aims to develop more integrated products involving technical and intelligent textiles. Researchers at Redhill have developed special fabric sensing and weave technology. The sensors are knitted conductive fibres that change resistivity with stretch to show the deformation of the garment.

Philips’ principal research scientist David Eves is enthusiastic about the potential of body-sensing technologies. ‘We are quite keen to look at moving from hard to soft technologies. We have been evaluating sportswear jackets that will sense movement in the upper body, limbs and joints. These jackets could be used for improving golf swing, or cricket or tennis technique. Or they could offer full body movement for computer games – where the player becomes Lara Croft, for example.’

Wearable computing is also making an impact in healthcare, because it is comfortable and enables medics to handle continuous monitoring of health functions without the need for bulky equipment. California-based Vivometrics has developed the LifeShirt, which monitors the heart, breathing, posture and physical activity of patients, plus mountaineers, pilots and racing drivers. The LifeShirt contains two parallel sinusoidal arrays of insulated copper wires embedded in elastic bands woven into the shirt, surrounding the upper torso.

Low-voltage electrical currents create an oscillating circuit. As the body moves the electrical sensors generate magnetic fields that are converted into voltage changes over time, and are read by a Handspring Visor personal digital assistant for portability.

VivoMetrics has signed an R&D agreement with the US Air Force Institute of Technology to integrate global satellite positioning and long-range wireless capabilities in the LifeShirt. The system will be used for real-time location and physiological monitoring of pilots in the field, and could play a vital role in accidents. Bill Cary, senior vice-president of VivoMetrics, says: ‘The wireless and GPS telemetry system will be built into flight crew uniforms, for tracking and monitoring and determining their physiological shape.’ Cary also sees opportunities to monitor performance of long-haul truckers or anyone affected by working long shifts using sensitive equipment.

Inevitably there has been considerable military interest. The US’s plan for smart uniforms capable of changing colour to blend with the background has been widely reported. In the UK QinetiQ is evaluating textile technology under the Future Integrated Soldier Technology (FIST) programme. Areas of interest include materials that react to temperature changes and become thicker in winter and thin in summer. Thermal control suits could also monitor health and medical condition. Hardwired or Bluetooth transmitters within the uniform could provide communications, helping target enemy installations and pass on orders to artillery units by e-mail.

Early wearable computing prototypes used hardware held in pockets on specially designed clothing, with wires arrayed throughout the garment. But research aimed at greater integration between fabrics and interface equipment is continuing.

The Wearable Group at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, is working on its 25th generation of wearable computers, having developed its first, Frogman, in the mid-1990s. Director of the group Dr Asim Smailagic says: ‘We are now entering a new phase of research due to advances in nanotechnology and other areas of IT.’

The research team is working with major industry partners including Boeing, DaimlerChrysler, IBM, Intel, AT&T and US Military, Marine and Air Force users.The Carnegie Mellon team has made clothing that integrates internet-enabled components including sensors, wiring and, it hopes eventually, batteries, using patented techniques for depositing electronic structures on the fabric. It recently developed a wearable computer for Pittsburgh-based Adtranz, to allow operators handling people-mover vehicles in airports to communicate by e-mail with engineers within minutes of a breakdown, simply by viewing an LCD or handheld display embedded in their overalls.

In 10 years’ time, will we all be wearing computer-enabled jackets? It looks likely that products with monitoring capability, such as the LifeShirt, will find applications in medical and other spheres. But in everyday life it will be some time before it’s clear whether intelligent textiles will lend a new meaning to the phrase ‘smart clothing’.It may depend on whether teenagers decide that an MP3 player embedded in your sleeve is the ultimate fashion accessory.

Sidebar: Appliance of the science

Two UK firms are developing the technology needed to integrate switches, keypads and computers into items of clothing.

Darlington-based Peratech manufactures a range of composite soft switches. The firm developed the technology with the support of three DTI Smart awards and recently formed a joint venture, called SoftSwitch, with New Zealand-based Wronz Euralab to market the elasto-resistive composites.

Its pressure-controllable switches consist of metallic particles with a thin layer of polymer, which in its normal state is an insulator and feels like rubber. As the polymer coating is extremely thin, the electrical properties of the material are very sensitive to deformation. Pressure reduces the resistance until the material achieves metal-like conductivity.

Peratech has demonstrated a keypad embedded in the arm of a jacket to control an MP3 player, and a textile keyboard. Its first commercial wearable product will be launched this winter, and the firm is in talks with companies in the electronics, automotive and upholstery business.

Pinewood-based Eleksen has just formed a strategic alliance with Logitech to market its flexible plug-in keyboard for Palm handheld computers. It claims the ElekTex keyboard, called Keycase, is the first widely available electronic fabric product. Developed with Ideo, which designed the Palm V handheld, it consists of an envelope of inert fabric containing a fabric-based sensor, which is a mix of conductive and non-conductive fibres, with a chip that operates the fabric sensors and reacts to any changes in position or pressure.

Development director Chris Chapman says the company is working closely with Johnson Controls, the world’s biggest manufacturer of car interiors. At the Paris Motor Show the firm demonstrated a car seat cover with a built-in soft switch that automatically monitors the position and weight of an occupant and adjusts the seat accordingly.

Eleksen is also targeting the healthcare sector for potential uses of its technology. But Chapman is sceptical about other suggested applications: ‘We’ve been approached by many companies interested in wearable computers, but there are not many examples of people wanting to wear a jacket with a telephone in the arm. We’re concentrating on serious product implementations which offer high volume, global markets for our technology.’