Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Design Notes : Using Smart Textiles

I have been looking into the current situation for smart textiles, in relation to some upcoming projects with regard to my work as a research scientist and artist. There is an absolutely fascinating blog site I've added to my list on this blog, called - as of today, I count 56 pages of information about different initiatives in smart textiles!

I used this blog to identify several companies that provide an entry point into smart textiles at modest prices. Hence, for example, Aniomagic provides kits such as the one shown at right that include textile switches, batteries, small LED lights and conductive thread that can be sewn into garments and used to control either lights or other devices. I ordered some of their products to try them out, and will report back on these efforts somewhat later on. I also looked up fiber optics companies with sideglow cables and ordered some of this to experiment with their inclusion into garments.

There are roughly four categories of smart textiles under development today :

1) Controllers for accessory devices and fashion elements : There are lots of actual products (i.e. garments) now available on the market that control devices such as iPods, and some garments with lighting patterns built into them. There are also a few kits for developing one's own garments, such as the Aniomagic one shown above, but these are not very robust yet, they are really meant for home projects rather than professional use;

Numetrex Garments

2) Sensors for body states : A growing number of companies are marketing garments with these capabilities. One of the most impressive I have seen are the Numetrex heartrate sensing shirts (sports bra for women, cardio shirt for men, child's shirt soon to be marketed). These are elegant sportswear garments that also monitor pulse (they are compatible with the Polar watch devices), but they are also inexpensive - the sports bra sells for about 50$ ;

3) Shape changing textiles (also called artificial muscles) : For the most part, these textiles are still in development and not available commercially, although this will likely change over the next couple of years. Like conducting thread and textile switches, however, sample kits are available for modest costs, albeit somewhat more expensive than the former and requiring a bit more expertise. The most widely available commercial product, shown in the figure to the left, is Nitinol, available in cylindrical wire, tubes, ribbons or as sheets. These are Nickel-Titanium wires and sheets that may stretch up to twenty times their length in their "superelastic" state, but also may change shape when heated or an electrical current is applied in their "shape memory state". Nitinol is used widely in medical applications (for example, for lining blood vessels), because the alloy is also anti-corrosive and does not interact with blood. Nitinol is named after the American Naval laboratory that originally developed and tested these allows.

4) Power generating textiles : Specially designing textiles are being created that convert human movement into electrical power. Eventually, these smart textiles will generate the power necessary to operate the other smart textiles, that today require separate battery packs.

Using smart textiles

As indicated earlier, there are a variety of kits available for some of these products that can be used to experiment with the incorporation of these technologies into clothes, and a growing number of companies and designers that are including their use within commercially available products. As part of my ongoing interest in clothes for people with disability, I will be working with rehabilitation engineers to develop "smart clothes" for different challenges in relation to disability. But there are also significant opportunities to develop interesting, useful and fashionable clothes for everyday use by all. I shall report back on my own efforts in this regard.

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