Technology is everywhere these days — from 5G humming through the air and smartphones seemingly surgically attached to our hands. While it’s no robotic hand, new research has found a way to bring technology closer to us by integrating it into the very clothes we wear.
In a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature, a team of engineers has designed a durable fabric with embedded electronics that can function not only as a tactile keyboard but as a high-resolution visual display as well. They report that their fabric can sustain multiple cycles of twisting, pressing, and bending (the kind of day-to-day wear we put our clothes through) — and can even be put through 100 washing cycles without loss of function.
With Google Maps on one arm and a live feed of the stock market on the other, even James Bond would be jealous of this technology.
Why it matters — Beyond being a flashy and innovative way to text your friends, the researchers say this technology could also be used in conjunction with brain-machine interfaces, like Elon Musk’s Neuralink, to transform people’s thoughts or feelings into messages that can be read from their clothing. The research team doesn’t reveal have a timeline for this integration, but says it could be a huge step forward for this space.
Here’s the background — Aside from glow-in-the-dark sneakers, such “smart” clothing has yet to see its day in the Sun. This is due in part to technical challenges, the research team explains in this paper. It’s a classic issue of a square peg and a round hole — essentially, electronic components required for tactile interaction or to produce light are very stiff, whereas fabrics are designed to mold to the human body and move with it.
“[T]extiles are woven from fibers, forming rough and porous structures that can deform and fit the contours of the human body [but] OLEDs [organic light-emitting diodes,] on the other hand, are made [to be] placed on planar substrates such as glass or plastic,” explain the authors.
“Therefore, when attached onto the rough and deformable surfaces of textiles, these film devices often perform poorly or fail over time.”
Solutions like weaving optical fibers into textiles are still far from perfect, write the team, because they have a limited ability to update or control pixels in real-time.
Instead, they devised a textile-production technique that relies on the intersecting points between intricately woven, and chemically doped, pieces of yarn. In this case, the yarn was coated in a flexible ionic-liquid-doped polyurethane gel (for conductivity) and a zinc-sulfur phosphor slurry (for a glowing green light). When adding more functionality, such as a keyboard, carbon fiber was also interwoven.
What they did — When weaving any textile (or making a lattice pie crust), the fibers can be woven in one of two directions:
- Warp (stationary threads held vertically by tension)
- Weft (crosswise threads that are fed through the warp threads)
In their textiles, the team wove cotton yarn both warp and weft while also interlacing silver-plated conductive yarn (in the weft direction) and luminescent doped yarn (along the warp direction). The intersections of these two enhanced yarns became the textile’s display pixels.
In addition to simply lighting up, the textile could be pressed at certain intersections to create a tactile keyboard — essentially when the fibers at these intersections are pressed together this creates different voltages which a connected microcontroller can convert into visual, numbered outputs.
What they discovered — As a proof-of-concept, the team connected their smart textile to a display driver, microcontroller, and Bluetooth module to feed real-time location data and images onto the textile to display an interactive navigation screen. They were also able to display text messages on a smart textile sleeve.
Another avenue the team explored is how smart textiles could be used as an assistive device to improve communication via brain-computer interfaces. They strapped volunteers into EEGs and monitored their brain waves while they either meditated or played a race car game. They write that the brainwaves of the meditating group were reliably low-frequency while the race car group (which they correlated with a more anxious mindset) were reliably high-frequency.
“We processed the signals on a computer and sent words corresponding to the mental state of the respective volunteers to the microcontroller through the Bluetooth module for display,” write the authors.
“In the future, together with ways to decode complicated brain waves, we envision display textiles such as ours to become effective assistive-technology communication tools.”
The team also reports that overheating is negligible at this time due to the smart textile’s low-power consumption of just over 363 microwatts (for reference, an LED lightbulb might use 6 million microwatts.) In addition to its low-power footprint, the textile’s power supply is also solar-powered, thus inherently rechargeable.
What’s next — These smart textiles aren’t ready to hit the runway just yet, but in the future the team hopes that they can be used to display emotions on the garments themselves, making it easier to communicate what you’re feeling with those around you — meaning you really can just let your clothes doing the talking.
Abstract: Displays are basic building blocks of modern electronics. Integrating displays into textiles offers exciting opportunities for smart electronic textiles—the ultimate goal of wearable technology, poised to change the way in which we interact with electronic devices. Display textiles serve to bridge human–machine interactions, offering, for instance, a real-time communication tool for individuals with voice or speech difficulties. Electronic textiles capable of communicating, sensing and supplying electricity have been reported previously. However, textiles with functional, large-area displays have not yet been achieved, because it is challenging to obtain small illuminating units that are both durable and easy to assemble over a wide area. Here we report a 6-metre-long, 25-centimetre-wide display textile containing 5 × 105 electroluminescent units spaced approximately 800 micrometres apart. Weaving conductive weft and luminescent warp fibres forms micrometre-scale electroluminescent units at the weft–warp contact points. The brightness between electroluminescent units deviates by less than 8 per cent and remains stable even when the textile is bent, stretched or pressed. Our display textile is flexible and breathable and withstands repeated machine-washing, making it suitable for practical applications. We show that an integrated textile system consisting of display, keyboard and power supply can serve as a communication tool, demonstrating the system’s potential within the ‘internet of things’ in various areas, including healthcare. Our approach unifies the fabrication and function of electronic devices with textiles, and we expect that woven-fibre materials will shape the next generation of electronics.