By Riya Chatterjee
Imagine being able to open locked doors without physically unlocking it with a key, but instead just with a swipe of your wrist. Technology is a major part of the modern person’s life, whether they are aware of it or not. Now, there is a new way to connect yourself to technology: your wardrobe. Researchers at the University of Washington are trying to connect clothes with our physical tech devices through the modification of smart fabrics and magnetized textiles. These textiles are capable of storing small amounts of data readable by a magnetometer, a device that detects the strength and direction of a magnetic field and communicates it with the device. This fabric could be potentially useful for invisibly labeling belongings, or using a shirt in place of a password or key card.
The researchers also used magnetized thread embroidered into gloves as a gesture controller for the phone, without need for any electronics or batteries on the fabric itself.
Connected fabrics and clothing have been around for many years, in some cases, through large companies like Google, but they still haven’t caught on with most consumers. This is mainly due to a combination of high prices and concerns about durability.
Shyam Gollakota, an associate professor and director of the UW Networks and Mobile Systems Lab, and Justin Chan, a graduate student in the lab, think that their work can change this, since they are focusing on producing smart clothing and accessories that will be readily available, fairly inexpensive, and made with unobtrusive conductive thread.
“Maybe it can get wet, that might be an issue.” said Will Erf, a freshman at Monta Vista High School. Erf described his concern about how durable smart fabrics can actually be, as if the technology works, but it isn’t durable, it would not be convenient for customers.
Gollakota and Chan found that they could use an Android smartphone to read data encoded on it even after washing, drying, and ironing the fabric. In an interview conducted by MIT Technology Review, Chan spoke up about this technique. Because of this, “[the material] is extremely durable,” said Chan, and the thread can be reprogrammed, too.
So how does this technology work?
The researchers from the University of Washington embroidered directly on fabric with the conductive thread and used magnets to encode short strings of binary code as positive and negative magnetic polarities. They then placed a smartphone near this magnetized, data-filled fabric and read its output with an app they built for that purpose, taking advantage of the magnetometer that phones use for orientation applications. With this magnetized patch, accomplishing tasks such as unlocking a door can be easily done with a swipe of the wrist.
“If you don’t want to wear the same clothing everyday, that might be a problem, since the smart thread is just on that one jacket,” Erf said. Not only have they created the simple patch, which can be attached to a sleeve, Gollakota and Chan created some prototype accessories such as a tie, belt, and a bracelet that had the capability to complete the same tasks. Other researchers have also created prototypes of this technology, such as Jacquard by Google, which has created a clothing line in collaboration with Levi’s that utilizes smart threads.
Wardrobe-based technology has many implications; increased ease and convenience in many day-to-day tasks, usage for people with disabilities or seniors, or even medical applications. Additionally, it is a step forward to further integrating technology in our lives. Who knows – perhaps in the future, you’ll be choosing your clothes based both on their looks and their technological applications!