What Makes Clothing Smart?

I'm researching smart textiles for a client, and one of the first questions is how to define smart textiles. Everything these days seems to be claiming intelligence - our phones, our cars, our watches. I found this amusing definition: "They [smart textiles] can be described as textiles that think and respond to a situation." Wow. And I suppose the category of "ultra-smart textiles" covers those with an IQ over 130. That must be really humbling for some people, realizing that their shirt is smarter than they are. Seriously, though, we're talking for the most part about textiles with embedded conductive threads and integrated sensors. The "intelligent" part of the system, which collects the data and transmits them to a computer, is usually enclosed in a rigid device that can be attached to the clothing but is not part of it. Other smart textiles include materials with properties (shape, color, etc.) that automatically change depending on ambient conditions without requiring external electronics.

A huge number of companies are interested in the smart textile market. The problem is that many of them are making demonstration or prototype products that pass the "cool factor" test but aren't really something that more than 100 people are ever going to buy. They are too expensive, too clunky, or really don't address a need. At least not today. But, as Steve Jobs has shown, the right marketing can change consumer expectations about what they need.

Speaking of Jobs, the movie that came out recently is worth seeing. Some situations are obviously fictionalized for dramatic effect, and it would have been nice to continue the story past 1998, but it was a compelling portrait with convincing actors.

Back to smart textiles. I somehow don't think that a $2500 shirt with sleeves that automatically roll up when the ambient temperature rises is something people are clamoring for, even though it's a creative use of shape memory materials. I would hope that people can remain smart enough to roll up their own sleeves or change shirts when the weather gets hot.

A "space bra" that will diagnose disease, however, could be an improvement over annual mammograms. At this point it is only a concept, but perhaps the sensors could be made sensitive enough to notice small deviations in the shape memory material from its default shape that could indicate a lump in the breast. That might prompt the wearer to go to a doctor for further examination. Still, I think the idea needs a lot more technological refining and customer education before it's ready for commercial use.

Some technologies, though are actually seeing market pull rather than technology push. The story of Keith McMillan Instruments is one example. The company makes pad controllers, mixer boards, and keyboards that incorporate smart fabric pressure sensors to create sliders and buttons. The sensors, conductive traces, and electronics are all integrated into a single piece of fabric. According to the website, McMillan Instruments has sold over 2 million products, mostly to professional musicians.

In October 2014, after being approached by OEMs looking to incorporate the fabric pressure sensors into their products, McMillan founded BeBop Sensors. BeBop's flexible pressure sensors are being incorporated into a wide variety of real-world, useful applications, from shoe uppers that can measure foot swelling in diabetic patients to skull caps that can measure the location and force of head impacts and help diagnose concussions. The company is also working on smart insoles geared toward the running community.

There are loads more examples of fascinating research into merging textiles and electronics and making textiles more functional. The woven solar cell is an amazing concept, and if we get to the point where someone can weave together a sufficiently efficient solar cell, that would be a great solution for powering smart clothing and even wearables like watches and phones. Universities are working on it, but I expect useable products are still many years away. Until that time, we all need to keep those chargers handy.