Since the dawn of recorded history, clothes have served human-kind by allowing protection from the elements, providing modest coverings, and then eventually allowing expression through fashion statements to allow a sort of “uniformed” expression. But now scientists have begun developing fibers that not only provide protection, comfort, and fashion. The new fibers being developed also allow a more complex form of communication and observation.
The information gathering materials were first developed by scientists at the University of Massachusetts and have allowed a new revolution in fashion that goes far beyond the aesthetic and into the realm of the synthetic. Yoel Fink, speaking from MIT said in an interview with the news site Discovery that the transition would be largely changing clothes from a purely static form into a more “intelligent” one. He said that though traditional materials such as cotton and polyester are comfortable, the services they provide are limited by the static nature of the fibers used.
Essentially the scientists use the same piezoelectric materials commonly found in digital information gathering tools (such as cameras and microphones) and weave them into the tiny fibers that make up our clothes.
Imagine an outfit that would change color depending on the temperature or allow sleeves to automatically shorten or lengthen in order to provide optimal comfort. A simple air conditioning unit could allow tiny fans to vent out clothes if the temperature within got too hot and simple motors could close gaps in the clothing attached to microscopic motors to button up coats if they got too cold. And there are more advanced applications to potential information gathering clothing. A suit with more advanced forms of light sensitivity technology could turn the entire suit into a walking surveillance vehicle complete with sound amplification technology that turns your entire core into a giant sound sensitive ear. Such applications could be incredibly useful to those skilled enough to use them.
And the potential for gaming applications are endless as well. Currently computer graphics imaging is based on a simple points of articulation that allow for larger and more complex models to mimic human movements. Often, however, it is the finer points of movement that make a model move into the “uncanny valley.” If the sensors were more comprehensive, would computer graphics be that much more convincing? Additionally, could a “sensor suit” allow even mundane clothes to become controllers for video games?
In 2008 we were first shown the possibilities of “smart clothes” which would monitor health and communicate via a network with other systems. There is a very real concern that such clothes could eventually have serious privacy concerns if they became interwoven with the fabric of every day society, but there are plenty who will inevitably show interest in the project.
How much will clothes like this cost? No doubt in the beginning the applications will have a very real cost and may even cost an arm and a leg. Eventually, however, they will hopefully not cost the shirt off your back. And mass production is likely the avenue for this type of material. In addition to having potential fashion, maintenance, and surveillance applications there are boundless more possibilities as the fashion minded begin collaborating with scientists.