Some day, our clothes will be able to talk to us. Your T-shirt will know your secrets. Your pants will keep track of your every move. Your outfit might even be able to gauge how you're feeling.

Sound creepy? For a lot of people, this sounds more normal than it would have a few dozen years ago, when these kinds of advances were mostly the stuff of a Stephen King story. Now, with items like Google Glass and pulse-taking wristwatches coming out into the market, we’re aware of the idea that electronics can be built into different kinds of accessories, or even clothes. Still, the idea of "smart clothes" can seem a little extreme. Maybe it shouldn't, though; most of the technology is already here.

The Origins of E-Textiles

The idea that computers can be "woven into" clothes dates back to the late 20th century, where academic teams at MIT and elsewhere had started to look into the prospect of developing e-textiles, or fabrics with computing hardware woven right in.

However, as with many new technologies, e-textiles started out largely as a military project. Resources on early e-textiles point to a DARPA program aptly named STRETCH, as well as early research into e-textiles at Virginia Tech. (Hokies fans will love the idea that some of the first e-textiles were woven in VT team colors ... Duke fans may not be quite as impressed.)

A New Kind of Soft-Wear

By putting conductors and other kinds of hardware into fabrics, future engineers will be able to make clothes that collect all sorts of useful information, or that broadcast data to wearers. The possibilities are nearly endless, but many past e-textile ideas have revolved around some common goals, including:
  • Capturing health information, such as vital signs
  • Allowing athletes to track movements for sports data mining
  • Setting up first responders with valuable atmospheric and environmental monitoring equipment
  • Geo-tracking for various research purposes
This 2011 article, Make Way in Your Closet for Smart Clothes, by Carol Torgan, Ph.D., goes into detail about how future clothes may capture physiological, biochemical and behavioral data in order to meet intelligence objectives, such as by analyzing sweat or electrical impulses from the body to show a person’s physical or emotional state. This could mean shirts that change color when we get mad, or alert us in some way of an impending bad mood, or smart gloves that can monitor hand/wrist activity, or e-underpants that could monitor the body through a carbon sensor in the elastic band. For law enforcement, first responder and military objectives, an inner garment might also measure things like heart rate and blood oxygen level, while an outer garment could monitor factors like local temperature and carbon gas levels to help protect someone on the front line of a fire or other emergency. Engineers are also looking to add "positional" tools that will show, for example, whether an individual has fallen, or whether vitals have changed. It’s not hard to envision how this will help a team of firefighters or other emergency units to better support their individual members, and how this kind of technology will save lives by replacing guesswork with real-time data.

MIT’s Lilypad: The E-Textile "Learning Lab"

For a practical look at today’s e-textiles, check out Lilypad, a modular sewing kit that allows for all kinds of "smart fashion" creations. The kit’s users can sew conductive thread into fabrics, and install tiny power supplies and other components to add visuals, interactive gear or data collection systems to clothing. Lilypad was developed by Leah Buechley, a scientist at MIT who helps to explore "high-low tech" IT implementation.

In the video below, Lilypad user Becky Stern gives a tutorial in crafting with the kit, not only setting up craft features but connecting the kit to a computer. As for the mass popularity of putting together computerized systems with a needle and thread, there hasn’t been a lot of Lilypad-related posting to crafting social media sites like Pinterest - but that doesn’t mean those posts aren’t coming soon to a profile near you.


Out With the Wash?

One of the big questions for anyone who's acquainted with daily household chores is how we’re going to deal with these big heaps of fancy computerized dirty laundry. Although it may be harder to wash and wear clothes made with e-textiles, particularly with CPUs and other elements on board, recent research from the Specialty Fabrics Review shows that practical ownership of new e-clothes may not be as difficult as you might think. A December 2010 post cites research in Switzerland where scientists took pieces of Kapton E, a type of plastic with chemical and temperature resistant qualities, and built on LEDs and other gear before encapsulating this hardware and subjecting it to the normal conditions of a wash cycle. This research showed that assembled e-fabrics could stand up to hot water and detergent for an hour, more than the time it takes for many wash cycles.

Kathy Martin is the president of KTS1 Inc., a company that helps to bring many different kinds of e-textiles products to market, and holds patents for emerging technology products. Martin says washable electronics like RFID chips will pave the way for an ever more advanced set of product lines that can be cared for easily.

"Most of the new performance fabrics can be washed, some with specific instructions, such as no enzymes in the soap," Martin said. "Many cannot be dry cleaned. The developers of these new textiles realize that while the market demands more, ease of care continues to take priority."

As for the future of the industry, Martin sees a lot of "fierce competition" on the horizon.

"It is a huge market ... with many large players jumping in," she said.

It seems that smarter clothes are on the way. The question is just how smart they'll get, and whether we even want them that way. At the very least, we should be smarter than our underpants.