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Ideas

This is the future of clothing

‘Smart’ is just the start; the next fabrics will change colors, block hackers, and generate power

By Glenn McDonald

Breathless is the prose that hypes our future of so-called smart clothing. Our clothes will be connected! Networked! Interactive!

This “smart” label is a catch-all tag for anything that merges technology with apparel: smart jeans, smart socks, and even — saints preserve us — smart yoga pants. The simplest smart clothes have sewn-in biofeedback sensors that connect to your phone. They’re jumped-up fitness trackers, basically, with the circuitry moved from a wristband to…wherever.

Some smart-clothing designers have gotten more inventive. The French startup Spinali Design makes high-end beachwear with integrated ultraviolet light sensors that tell you when it’s time to apply sunscreen, and distance trackers that tell you when the kids have wandered too close to the surf. Google’s Jacquard project is developing a bicyclist jacket that lets you plug your phone right into the fabric for hands-free alerts via lights and vibrations in the cuffs.

But the real next-generation fun is emerging from academic journals, advanced design labs, and fast-forward startup companies.

Color-Swapping Clothes

Remember those goofy hypercolor shirts from the 1990s, where the fabric changed color with heat (and sweat)? That was fun for a minute, and you could put hand prints in untoward places, but you never really controlled the colors.

Scientists at the University of Central Florida are developing a new fabric that will let you switch its colors and patterns through an app on your phone. Using a mesh of ultrathin wires, the system sends an imperceptible electric charge through the fabric, tweaking the temperature to trigger those heat-sensitive pigments.

With a phone app, the wearer can send fashion commands to the battery pack. Theoretically, the system could work with any kind of garment or accessory, so you could change the color of your shirt or the pattern on your purse whenever the mood strikes. The research team, which is partnering with designers and the startup WETESO (for Wearable Technology Solutions), hopes to have the technology on the racks within a year or two.

Bacteria-Powered Shirts

A team of MIT researchers has developed a system for putting bacteria to work. The intriguing bioLogic project uses living microorganisms in the fabric to create clothing that moves and morphs on its own to cool the wearer. The synthetic “biohybrid” material takes advantage of chemical and mechanical properties of the bacterium Bacillus subtilis, also used in traditional Japanese fermenting. The bacteria particles react to certain heat and humidity thresholds. When bioprintedA process similar to 3D printing in which living microorganisms are embedded into a material or fabric. onto fabric, the bacteria power a system of soft vents in the material. If it gets too hot, the vents curl back, cooling the skin underneath through natural evaporation. No batteries required.

Anti-Surveillance Stealth Wear

Surveillance technology has been a growth industry for 150 years. The future will bring more cameras, more microphones, more sensors, more drones. So clothing designers and activist artists are already responding to surveillance-state concerns. Scientists from Northeastern University, Brazil’s Federal University of Parana, and Massachusetts’ Draper Laboratory are developing ways to harness the body’s electric signals to send data collected by wearable devices via touch, rather than through the airwaves — thus making it impervious to hackers.

Meanwhile, Berlin-based design professor Adam Harvey has been developing a line of stealth-wear clothing: parkas, hoodies, and hijabs designed to thwart thermal-imaging cameras. The garments, made from silver-plated synthetic fabrics, are highly flexible, wearable, and thermally reflective. The clothing makes it harder for aerial surveillance drones’ heat-seeking cameras to see the wearer.

Several companies are also developing light-emitting dazzler accessories — purses, hats, even umbrellas — that wash out unwanted photographs and confuse some optical sensor systems. The Dutch design firm KOVR has designed anti-surveillance overcoats that block wireless signals, turning your outerwear into a mobile Faraday cage.A privacy enclosure that blocks all electromagnetic fields and signals, developed by 19th-century scientist Michael Faraday.

Kinetic Energy Boots

Wearable computers have gone far beyond smart watches and fitness trackers. You can also buy smart jewelry, implantable devices, and — for industry — crazy head-mounted displays.

All wearables need a power source. So startups like the Pittsburgh company SolePower now harvest energy from everyday human activities. SolePower’s boots gather energy from walking. Built-in mechanisms leverage the rotational motion of every step you take and convert kinetic energy to electricity, which is stored in a battery for powering up other wearable systems.

Other researchers are developing lightweight piezoelectric Refers to materials that deliver an electrical charge in response to mechanical movement or stresssystems in shoes and clothing. Scientists at the University of Southampton in England are working on a removable insole that would power devices directly. Researchers at Georgia Tech are working on shirts that capture energy from the friction of moving arms.

The Body Electric 

Electrical engineers at North Carolina State University recently unveiled a thermoelectric system that turns body heat into electricity for wearable computers. Ceramic button-sized generators, stitched into a regular T-shirt, harvest energy from the difference in ambient temperature between the wearer’s skin and the passing air. Solar-powered clothing is already popping up commercially — athletic outwear, bikinis — although it’s mostly in the novelty phase. (Who wants to wear a giant plastic solar panel?)

But the Nanoscience Research Group at Georgia Tech is working to combine mechanical and solar energy — harvesting systems into one versatile fabric, a new lightweight smart fiber. It’s flexible enough to be stitched into an undershirt or even a tent, pulling energy from the sun, body movement, or wind gusts.

Whither the Future?

Energy-generating clothing is probably the busiest area of research right now in future-tech clothing design, and one of the most imminent. We’ll likely see this tech on the racks within a few years.

Alert readers will note that energy-harvesting apparel essentially turns our bodies into living batteries for our machines. This is a rather profound reversal that science fiction has warned us about. Remember those suspended animation pods in The Matrix, by which future machines raised humans for bioelectricity? 

It’s weird, but only if you stop to think about it. The trick is not to think about it.

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Glenn McDonald is a writer based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

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