(I'm watching you! Dresses made from fabric embedded with eye tracking technology - source)
Waaaayy back in 1996 and thanks to funding from DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency - which has a reputation that borders on science fiction - researchers at the Textile Information Systems Research Laboratory at Georgia Institute of Technology were already building smart clothing. For military purposes, of course. The navy wanted a way to monitor soldiers wounded in battle, so the Georgia Tech gang found a way to weave optical fibers into the fabric in a continuous loop. When a bullet severed the fibers, its exact location could be noted and transmitted electronically to the field hospital.
In addition to monitoring vital signs, the Wearable Motherboard top was designed to be easy to care for and comfortable. "The Smart Shirt is an effective, comfortable, and mobile information infrastructure that can be tailored to the individual's requirements to take advantage of the advancements in telemedicine and information processing," notes Dr. Sundaresan Jayaraman, who oversaw the Wearable Motherboard project. "The research has led to a groundbreaking contribution with enormous implications: The creation of a wearable information infrastructure that has opened up entirely new frontiers in personalized information processing, healthcare and telemedicine, and space exploration, to name a few."
A name that's catchy it might be missing, but the next gen of juiced-up textiles is now here. Researchers at PARC in Palo Alto - the same geek hothouse responsible for the ethernet, laser printers and the graphical user interface (that Steve Jobs paid $1 million to learn about) - envision going beyond just tacking smart devices onto dumb clothing. Instead, they have been busy chopping up semiconductor wafers into chiplets the width of a human hair, mixing this chip-dust into an ink and then electrostatically placing the pieces into a fluid. A roller then picks the chiplets up and uses electrical fields to guide and print them into various patterns. "Because printers can deposit materials on different substrates, this technology could be used to make high-performance flexible electronic devices, tiny sensors festooned with dense arrays of diverse sensors, or 3-D objects with computing functions woven in," says Janos Veres, manager of PARC’s printed-electronics team. "Existing electronics-printing systems generally use lower- performance materials," adds Eugene Chow, an electrical engineer who leads the project, but “potentially, we can use the absolutely highest-performance chips on the market."
By making it easier for small companies to design and manufacture custom computing devices, the chip-infused ink could potentially contain tiny functioning devices by the thousands, including LEDs, lasers, processors and memory, and sensors based on microelectromechanical devices (MEMS). Currently, the silicon wafers have simple negative and positive charges added before they get chopped up. But this method of directing where the chiplets get printed will start to look downright simplistic as several more steps are added to the printing process, in particular charge-based bar codes which generate final printed designs that will be much more complex and rich. "If this works," notes Chow, it will represent "a new platform where we put millions and billions of things together.”
- Lesley Scott
Podcast music: Kevin MacLeod, Incompetech.com