How to

27 July 2017

Clothes Are Fast Becoming the Computers of the Future

Img: Wyss Institute - Harvard University 
We’re all gradually becoming more and more health conscious. Society makes it impossible not to be, and as we try to change how we live our lives we look for ways to make getting in shape a lot easier. Researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute might have the answer we’re looking for.

The team recently uncovered a new design and manufacturing method for wearable technology that allows clothes to reliably track your movements. Until now, the availability of wearable technology has been restricted to devices like smart watches, pedometers and VR headsets, all of which are made from hard, inflexible materials that don’t prioritise comfort. That’s why this new development is so revolutionary.

The researchers at the Wyss Institute have created a sensor formed of silicone and conductive fabric that’s doesn’t obstruct, and is highly sensitive to, your movements. The silicone is layered between two strips of fabric which are locked together through curing, allowing the materials to move as one. Wires are attached via thermal seam tape to the fabric to allow for the transfer of electrical information.

In discussion of how the technology in the clothes works, co-author Daniel Vogt explained that:

“When we apply strain by pulling on the sensor from the ends, the silicone layer gets thinner and the conductive fabric layers get closer together, which changes the capacitance of the sensor in a way that’s proportional to the amount of strain applied, so we can measure how much the sensor is changing shape.”

This combination of materials is so effective at tracking movement because they complement one another. When stretched, the silicone is prevented from deformation thanks to the strong fibres of the fabric. Likewise, the presence of silicone keeps the fabric from losing its original shape after the strain is removed. What’s more, the merging of these allow the conductive area and its capacitance to increase when stretched, a change not normally identified by elastic materials.

“Embedding the silicone in conductive fabric prevented the silicone from shrinking as much width-wise, which improved sensitivity above that of the bare silicone we tested,” stated lead author Asli Atalay.

This new development will be of great benefit to athletes and winter sports enthusiasts because of the potential it shows for the future of wearable technology. Clothing that can sense movement is just the first step towards more advanced developments that are able to track data like heart and breathing rate. Conor Walsh, one of the authors of the research paper, said that:

“This work represents our growing interest in leveraging textile technology in robotic systems, and we see promising applications for motion capture ‘in the wild’, such as athletic clothing that tracks physical performance or soft clinical devices to monitor patients in their homes.”

For people who train in harsher climates or partake in more extreme sports, the presence of light, flexible technology in their clothing would be a blessing. It’d allow them to track their stats and performance without the added bulk of a piece of tech. They already have to wear so much just to keep warm, they don’t need an unnecessary weight holding them down.

Although this technology is still in its early days with a lot of progress needing to be made, there is great hope for what can be achieved in the years to come.

James Darvill

James is a passionate scriptwriter and reluctant poet with a talent for the dystopian. When he’s not staying up late watching the Simpsons he’s beating the world at Mario Kart, always with a glass of wine in hand.