One limitation to wearable technology is the need for electronics and wiring that make so-called “smart” clothing not so comfortable to wear.
Researchers at the University of Washington (UW) have found a way to make clothes smarter without on-board electronics using a new type of data-storing fabric that leverages technology already found in smartphones.
The fabric eliminates one of the key reasons wearable technology and smart clothing hasn’t quite caught on yet, said Justin Chan, a doctoral student at UW who worked on the project.
“One thing preventing the adoption of smart fabrics is the fact that they typically require an electronic chip or microcontroller to be attached to your clothing,” he explained to Design News. “This can be cumbersome as they require charging. By taking an electronic-free approach, we can create smart fabrics that are highly durable and waterproof against rainwater and laundry cycles.”
Researchers at the University of Washington (UW) have found a way to make clothes smarter without on-board electronics using a new type of data-storing fabric that can communicate with mobile devices using magnetic fields. The photo shows a tie the team created out of the magnetized fabric. (Source: Dennis Wise/University of Washington)
The fabric and accessories created from the fabric can store data--such as security codes and identification tags--without sensors or electronics by using previously unexplored magnetic properties of off-the-shelf conductive thread, he said. An instrument embedded in existing smartphones that enables navigation applications can read the data.
“Conductive threads are typically used in smart-fabric designs as a wire to carry electricity from one point to another,” Chan explained. “What we discovered was that we could magnetize these threads using a magnet like a fridge magnet. We could then sense the thread's presence or absence using a magnetometer, a sensor used to measure magnetic fields.”
Smartphones already all have magnetometers because they are used in navigation apps like GPS to determine direction, he said. Researchers leveraged this existing technology to sense whether conductive thread is nearby.
“We can encode data onto these magnetized fabrics in the same way that data is stored on the magnetic hard drive on your computer,” Chan explained.
Using conventional sewing machines, the team embroidered these conductive threads into regular textiles, and then polarized each cell with a north or south pole to embed a 0 or 1, he said. Specifically, they took a thin 5-millimeter strip of conductive fabric, divided it up into 2-centimeter long cells, and embedded a bit onto each cell, Chan explained.
“We can easily encode data like serial numbers, or 2D images with a unique pattern like miniature QR codes,” he said.
The UW team created prototype fashion accessories out of the magnetized fabric, including a tie, belt, necklace, and wristband. In one instance to test the material, they stored the passcode to an electronic door lock on a patch of conductive fabric sewn to a shirt cuff, then unlocked the door by waving the cuff in front of an array of magnetometers.
Chan said the team envisions two key applications for their work. One is for invisible tags to be sewn into clothing sold at department stores to help prevent theft and make it easy for employees to scan purchased clothes, he said.
“With our approach, all clothes can be unobtrusively tagged with a unique identifier that is embedded into the fabric,” Chan said. “Furthermore, all of our tags can be read with an everyday smartphone.”
Another application for the technology would be for employees who need to use RFID keycards to access authorized employer facilities, he said.
“What we envision is for uniformed employees like doctors, or hotel or mall employees to have our specialized fabrics embedded in their uniforms,” Chan said. “So instead of scanning an RFID keycard to get to work everyday, these employees can instead scan the cuff of their shirt against a reader and easily access authorized areas.”
The team plans to continue their work to increase the density of information that can be stored in the fabrics, Chan said. “Doing this would require developing our own customized threads, as well as an automatic and precise method of embedding and retrieving the data,” he said.
Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 15 years.