Something up the sleeve

Sept. 28, 2006
Technology is changing more than the way we work and play, it's changing the way we dress for work and play.

A person buried alive by an avalanche can survive for 60 min using the breathing apparatus in the AvaLung backpack.

OLED-integrated clothing and accessories display changing digital images and designs.

A jacket called the Hoodio features a control keypad on the sleeve and removable speakers in the hood.

Virginia Polytechnic Institute Associate Professor Thomas L. Martin and student Meghan Qwirk weave e-textiles on an industrial loom.

Associate Editor

What will be on the Christmas wish list of every snowboarding technogeek this year? How about a jacket — that's right, a jacket — that switches between iPod playlist and incoming calls in mid-air?

Miniaturization, the development of electronic textiles, and recent battery and sensor technology have made it possible to incorporate iPods, GPS, cell phones, wireless communications, and even emergency breathing apparatus into clothing and accessories. These wearable devices are moving into both industrial and consumer markets. Information-technology consultant Gartner Inc., Stamford, Conn., predicts that by 2007 more than 60% of people between the ages of 15 and 50 in the U.S. and Europe will carry or wear a wireless computing and communications device.

For example, Burton Snowboards of Burlington, Vt., and Motorola, Schaumburg, Ill.,have joined forces to create jackets and caps for the plugged-in winter-sports set. Motorola is credited with introducing the age of commercial wireless products, and Burton is known for its highend snowboarding equipment and apparel.

The snowboarder jacket has a padded casing for a Motorola cell phone and an MP3 music player. A device on the sleeve lets the wearer control incoming and outgoing calls, and toggle back and forth to music. Audio signals travel to removable speakers in the hood. Bluetooth technology lets headsets and computers communicate with each other over a short range without wired connections. The jacket links the snowboarder's cell phone and iPod with an imbedded system operated via a removable control module on the jacket sleeve. The jackets cost between $200 and $800.

Bluetooth technology is also built into Burton's helmets and "beanies" to keep those tunes and calls coming in. Remove the modules and they double as a stereo headset.

Chipmaker Infineon Technologies, Munich, and O'Neill Europe have also integrated Bluetooth wireless technology and an MP3 player into their own snowboarder jacket called The Hub. Woven into the jacket are electrically conductive fabric tracks, which connect the chip module to a fabric keyboard and built-in speakers in the hood. The chip module contains a full-featured MP3 player and a Bluetooth module via which with the snowboarder can control a mobile phone. If the snowboarder wants to make a phone call, the stereo system acts as the headset. The microphone is integrated in the collar of the jacket.

Wearable technology has yet to catch on with mainstream consumers, but that hasn't stopped Xybernaut, Fairfax, Va., from marketing a wearable, 1.9-lb computer with an 8.4-in. touchscreen. The flat-panel system works as both a wireless outdoor display and a standalone wearable computer.

The company says it has orders for the Atigo T/HB, which works in bright outdoor conditions, from the U.S. Dept. of Defense. Another model, the Atigo T dual-purpose computer, has a resolution of 800 600 pixels, comes with Wi-Fi support, and uses a 1-GHz processor from Transmeta.

And then there's a new fabric for tree-huggers with no particular affection for corn. According to a story reported in the Wall Street Journal, Ingeo (pronounced IN-gee-oh) is one of the environmentally friendly fabrics used in Loudermilk jeans, tights, and jersey tops. However, after Hellen Yuan, a senior designer for Loudermilk,-gave her corn-fiber shirt to a seamstress for pressing, it came back with an iron-shaped hole in it. Ms. Yuan says she may change the seams in the blouse so the garment won't need ironing.

A number of designers are marketing chemical, pesticide, and insecticide-free cotton in their apparel. The tag on a Giorgio Armani corn-fiber knit shirt reads, "Derived from 100% renewable natural resources and fully biodegradable."

Thomas L. Martin, an associate professor in Virginia Tech's Bradley Dept. of Electrical and Computer Engineering recently received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) for his work in the emerging field of electronic textiles. Last year, Martin received a five-year NSF Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) grant for designing e-textiles — cloth interwoven with electronic components — for use as wearable computers.

Martin and his colleague Mark Jones, also an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, are developing so-called "smart" clothes that sense their own shapes, the wearer's motions, and the position of the sensing elements. The main focus of their research is potential medical applications.

Electrical wires, sensors, and actuators are woven into the fabric which, in turn, can be made into shirts, hats, gloves, and other items capable of monitoring such things as how fast and far a jogger is running or the blood pressure and heart rate of a cardiac patient. The researchers weave their own e-textiles fabrics on an industrial loom.

In another collaboration, this one with Thurmon Lockhart, director of the Locomotion Research Laboratory, Martin and Jones are using e-textiles to study the human gait. One potential outcome is clothing that could sense when an elderly or infirm wearer is in danger of falling.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab are developing fashion accessories that change patterns and designs based on the wearer's whim. The project, dubbed "urbanhermes," takes cues from the online world and applies them to fashion. OLED-integrated clothing displays changing digital images and designs.

For example, a tee shirt could be solid blue one day and striped the next. Digital images could be wirelessly transmitted to clothing worn by others, creating a sort of "viral fashion," unless blocked by user-set permissions. Changing the pattern on your shirt or pants would be as simple as absorbing the image from the person next to you or subscribing to a designer's feed.

The idea of OLED-integrated clothing is not new but MIT's approach to viral propagation is innovative. The proof of concept comprises a Sharp Zaurus PDA woven into a messenger bag, the screen visible through a clear plastic window. The device uses Bluetooth and infrared technology for proximity detection and data transmission.

Even the venerable Levi Strauss is jumping on the hightech bandwagon with its RedWire DLX Jeans. According to the company's Web site, the jeans integrate iPod plug-and-play technology and "feature a special joystick in the watch pocket to enable easy operation of the iPod." (We didn't make this up.)

The iPod docking cradle is built into a side pocket of the jeans. Four-way joystick controls let the wearer play/pause, track forward and backward, and adjust the volume without having to remove the iPod from the pocket. A retractable headphone is built into the jeans.

ICD+ jackets from Philips and Levi Strauss have their own personal-area network (PAN), that is, an electronic circuit woven into the jacket that serves as the backbone for various devices. Similar to local area networks that connect computers, a PAN allows the transport of data, power, and control signals within the garment.

Several devices can be added to the PAN and controlled by remote. A small display alerts users to every incoming phone call, e-mail, or song title playing on an MP3. The ICD+ wearer won't be bothered by the weight of the electronics and more than 4 ft of wire. Total weight of the equipment is 4.5 oz. (The phone and battery weigh 3 oz; the MP3 audio player, 1.5 oz.) To operate the phone, the user speaks into the collar. To read short electronic messages directed to the mobile phone, the user says "Read short messages." To display the calendar, the user says "Calendar."

And lest we forget the kids, GapKids, the Gap's children's clothing division, has hooked up with toymaker Wild Planet to offer a fleece jacket with a built-in radio. The Hoodio, another example of interactive clothing, has a control keypad on the sleeve and removable speakers in the hood.

British Telecom is working with the military to develop clothes that change thickness and therefore thermal properties according to the ambient temperature. Another design would splash medicine onto a wound when a projectile strikes a soldier. When broken, the optical fiber woven into a soldier's clothes could inform field medics of the location of a wound. Other sensors could monitor blood loss, pulse, etc., and relay the data.

Millions of microcapsules could provide dynamic camouflage. And one day soon the same technology could produce kaleidoscopic street clothes.

In Europe, snowslides kill nearly 100 people each year. Many of these fatalities are the result of suffocation, not the initial impact. Now, there's a vest that lets a trapped person breathe while completely buried by snow.

Ueli Buhler, a Swiss mountain climber and crosscountry skier, wearing an Avalung, was covered with a meter of snow. After 1 hr, he was removed unharmed. Normally, someone caught in an avalanche would not survive more than 30 min. A person's breath melts the snow around the face, which then refreezes to produce a "death mask." The victim recycles the trapped air, increasing their carbon-dioxide intake before passing out from oxygen starvation.

The Avalung from Black Diamond Equipment, Salt Lake City, has a pipe near the vest's collar, which must be inserted into the mouth before the person is immobilized in the snow. The tube connects to a filter at the front of the vest which draws air from the snow around the body — not just from around the nose and mouth. Exhaled carbon dioxide goes past a one-way valve and out the back of the vest.

Reima, a Finnish company, has introduced a line of high-tech clothes that navigates, performs health checks, and sends emergency signals. The company says its Cyberia-brand clothing is for use in Arctic conditions. The Cyberia jump suit monitors the wearer's heart rate, body temperature, and movement. In an emergency, it sends a message over mobile phone networks. The remaining energy helps keep the person warm.

A handheld module connected to the suit furnishes weather forecasts and information on light conditions. Global Positioning System helps rescuers locate the victim in an emergency.

You smell 'Mahvelous'

We want our clothes to make us look good, but can they make us smell good, too? Researchers at Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, Pa., hope to turn ordinary clothing into bacteria killers and detectors of biological agents.

The trick is to coat fabrics with nanoparticles. Besides functioning as odor and disease sensors, the coatings could also improve fire-retardant properties in all kinds of fabrics, or monitor blood sugar in sweat, according to Wilkes Engineering Professor Ali Razavi.

Razavi and his colleagues want to design and market a 12-in. roll-to-roll machine that will apply the nanoparticles. But the project won't stop at the prototype stage. Lockheed Martin, Cinram Mfg., and Fairchild Semiconductor have all expressed interest in commercializing the coating process.

A few more examples of what the future may hold

Citizens Watch Co. and IBM have developed a computer that fits inside a watch. The prototype WatchPad includes Bluetooth wireless along with a speaker, a microphone, and a biometric device. IBM has also developed a prototype blood-pressure cuff that measures blood pressure and sends the measurement to a mobile phone.

A concept wristwatch PDA from Toshiba features a hi-definition wide-screen display, video playback, videophone conferencing, voice-recognition software, and Bluetooth.

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