Leading light

Despite making an era-defining appearance in the cult science-fiction film Tron in 1982, glowing electronic clothes have never really caught on.

As well as the very real chance of electrocution in the rain, early incarnations of the idea invariably resulted in bulky electronics, wiring and left early adopters with all of the ‘geek chic’ fashion appeal of a modern Darth Vader.

However, the idea has persisted and recent developments in the world of ‘smart fabrics’ has allowed the direct integration of iPod controls and various other electronics into clothing.

Electronics giant Philipshas just launched its own version of ‘smart clothing’ and plans to take the world by storm with its vision of interactive electronic fashionwear. The group’s proprietary technology is known as Lumalive and allows changing messages and patterns to appear on fabric — either in clothing or on furniture — and represents the company’s first foray into the burgeoning ‘smart fabric’ industry.

Dr Martijn Krans is the technology manager for Photonics Textiles, a research group within Philips Research that has made this bold move from research project to full-blown commercial enterprise. Earlier this month at the IFA in Berlin — the world’s largest consumer electronics show — the group paraded its newest range of smart fabrics and wowed the crowd with a rather unusual hi-tech fashion show.

Krans joined the research group three years ago and is now overseeing the potentially tricky phase of taking what is an interesting technology and helping Philips make money from it — far from guaranteed in the fickle world of fashion.

However, while this will ultimately decide whether consumers are ready for interactive glowing T-shirts or not, Krans is also closely involved with the research group as it continues to develop the next stage of its technology and future incarnations of Lumalive.

The textile uses soft panels filled with matrices of tiny inorganic LEDs which are mounted on a flexible substrate. This flexibility allows the panels to be embedded in textile structures such as clothing or furniture. The technology was quite a hit with the audience at the IFA show, according to Krans. ‘The dynamic movements of the patterns and the bright colours meant it attracted a great deal of attention from the audience, which is a good sign,’ he said.

Krans described the technology as the latest version of that trusty old marketing tool — the sandwich board. He sees its immediate future as a moveable, colourful billboard that could display marketing and promotional messages integrated in the jacket which are both easily changed and distinctly high-profile.

‘The main target for the business at first is events clothing and furniture,’ he said. ‘Advertising agencies could buy the ‘billboard-vests’ and then adapt the messages and colours depending on the event they are marketing.’

Since the specially-designed shiny fabric material covering the miniature light sources naturally diffuses the light, each pixel seems bigger than it actually is. The LEDs can therefore remain small and unobtrusive, while the fabric retains its soft look and feel. To meet the challenge of creating light-emitting cloth objects that retain their softness, Philips Research and German textile institute TITV Greiz collaborated to develop the interconnecting substrate.

The only problem so far has been maximising the product’s robustness. Although the LED sheets are waterproof they are not yet robust enough to withstand a full washing machine cycle, Krans admitted. ‘It is the harshest environment you can think of because of all the G-forces, the heat, and the chemicals. To get around this our soft lighting panels can be removed before washing while still being fully integrated in the clothing.’

Powered by conventional rechargeable lithium batteries similar to those in mobile phones, the key to Lumalive’s future success, according to Krans, is its adaptability. Each Lumalive product — be it a bodywarmer, jacket or comfy two-seater settee — comes with a handset that gives the user total control over the animations and colours that are displayed.

Each product sold also comes equipped with specially-developed software, designed by Philips, that is intended to make it extremely easy to change the design or animation. The controller connects to a PC using a conventional USB cable, and the program means that new content can be dragged and dropped into place. ‘It is an entire system, which is important,’ said Krans.

The next step for Photonic Textiles is to improve the flexibility of the final product, said Krans.

‘Research is working on a fully fabric version of Lumalive that means that the LEDs will be directly mounted on a substrate that is entirely made from fabric,’ he said. ‘This would mean it could be mounted on anything, making the thinnest material — such as a T-Shirt or flags — light-emitting. This is what we see as the next step after the current embedding method we are using.’

This could prove rather tricky, he admitted, as extreme flexibility usually goes hand-in-hand with extreme robustness.

‘Being able to make a light-emitting piece of fabric like a handkerchief into a display is a real mechanical challenge and requires special solutions on heat dissipation and electronic driving circuitry,’ he said. ‘However, the driving circuitry we are using at the moment has been developed to take these future Lumalive developments into account.’

Krans and his team are also working on developing even more functionality for their product by integrating an array of sensors in Lumalive-enabled products. So far this has taken the form of proximity sensors in sofas — these indicate when someone is close and activate the settee’s lights. While this is currently only available in prototype form, Krans welcomes the possibilities afforded by integrating ever-greater layers of functionality into the products.

‘At the moment each controller that runs the LED layer is linked to a mobile phone, so each garment can be operated from a distance and specific text messages or animations can be triggered by an SMS. This kind of functionality would be particularly useful in the events market,’ he said.

In Krans’ view, the smart textile industry is still very much in its infancy and there is massive potential for growth. Much current research — including that by UK company Eleksen (The Engineer, 13 March) — is based around operating iPods and other electronics through fabric control panels in ski and outdoor clothing.

However, according to Krans, industry forecasts predict that the market is likely to grow and diversify extremely rapidly over the next few years as the technology matures.

One area that he is keen to pursue is the use of smart textiles in personal healthcare applications, and research is already underway in integrating photonic textiles with bio-monitoring capabilities.

Products already available — such as sensor-enabled bras — are monitoring respiration or heartbeats, and Krans imagines linking the two technologies in the future. This could give rise to the possibility of body monitoring sensors that can activate the LED-enabled garments to give an instant indication of the body’s health.

To start with, however, the company is sticking to lighting up the events market. ‘In the future there are many other applications for the technology,’ said Krans. ‘Toys, balloons, tents and flags — it could be used in anything. But in the starting phase of our business we have to be sure we’ve got the right market place for the technology, so that’s what we’re doing’.

Whether the look will ever catch on remains to be seen, but Philips is banking on the hope that the future of electronic clothing is bright.