How would you like a fancy Christmas garment embedded with sensors to measure your body movements? Or a reindeer hat that moves its horns when your heart beats faster? Don’t worry if you’re not a fan of winter festivities, because the technology behind the next generation of smart clothes is for everyone and can be woven into anything we wear.
Under microscope detail of the smart fabric which includes metal fibers. Credits: Euronews/European Commission, 2017
Scientists from institutes in Germany, Switzerland and Sweden have developed a mass-producible system to monitor people’s activity, nutrition and physiological changes. And, the magic is, the sensors are not fixed to the fabrics, rather are the fabric itself.
The goal of the project, called SimpleSkin, “is to move smart textile from a niche topic into a major industry with the potential of revolutionising what we wear,” says Jingyuan Cheng, lab leader from the Wearable Computing Lab based at the University of Braunschweig, Germany.
Everything starts from a synthetic sensing textile made of polymer fibres interwoven with a silver-copper alloy. The fabric is cut and sewn as in normal clothes and then connected to the electronics, making up hundreds to thousands of sensors.
A software can read the information arriving from the garment and show it on the iPad screen. Credits: Euronews/European Commission, 2017
“The idea is to separate sensing textile production, garment manufacturing, the hardware platform, and the software implementation by well-defined abstractions and interfaces,” Cheng explains. “We’ve come up with an abstraction layer, a kind of operating system for clothes, which allows people to develop apps for smart textiles and use them like a smartphone’s local sensors.”
The first garment’s operating system runs using Android. A Python-based open-source library has also been developed for potential developers to process the sensor data on almost all mainstream platforms.
The technology is not just restricted to clothes, although the researchers have developed a smart sport suit to measure athletic performance. Covering surfaces like chairs and floors with smart textiles can measure life’s daily activities like standing gait, and sitting and driving posture. The team is now exploring monitoring nutrition with a smart table cloth, as well as activity level and breathing rate using a smart car seat able to alert the driver when they should take a break, and children’s play behaviour with a plush toy. “We have shown that mass-production of smart textile and development of many applications is possible. And the market can be huge,” says Cheng.