In the 1988 sci-fi novel Wetware by Rudy Rucker, a character wears a "heartshirt"--a t-shirt that detects the wearer's heart rate and displays it on the front.
It may have been futuristic 20 years ago, but today you could replace a good portion of your wardrobe with "smart" electronic clothing, thanks to innovations in MEMS (Microelectromechanical Systems), carbon nanotubes, polymers, Kevlar, and more. While much of the clothing is designed as health diagnostics tools or for the elderly, researchers and investors are also beginning to invest in "cool" smart fabrics, as long as consumer demand is there and the cost is right.
There are several techniques for creating smart fabrics. For example, MEMS textiles usually contain tiny metal wires woven into the fabric, or wires as the actual fibers, that give the clothes electrical properties. Despite the different approaches, most smart fabrics have a few things in common: they're washable, comfortable, and make use of flexible electronic circuitry.
Here are a few examples of the best in Sci-Fi Fashion of 2007:
Audio-Controlling Ski Jackets
Ski jackets made by Eleksen, Ltd., uses touch-sensitive fabric controls to allow wearers to control iPods simply by touching parts of the "iJacket." By pushing two layers of the clothing together with their fingers, the wearer creates a closed circuit to issue a command. The company is also investigating human-computer interface applications.
A shirt designed by Francis Tay and colleagues from the National University of Singapore can detect when a person falls, and wirelessly transmit the information to relatives via Bluetooth. The shirt can measure the speed and tilt of the wearer, and will soon be able to predict falls as well as report them.
A smart bra developed by Elias Siores and colleagues from the University of Bolton is a low-risk, non-invasive, and simple method to detect breast cancer at a curable stage. The bra uses a built-in microwave antenna and embedded microchips to collect data to generate computer images, which is easily interpreted, and cost-effective.
These jackets, designed by the Center for Biomimetic and Natural Technologies in the UK, adapt to changing temperatures by opening up thin spikes of wool when warm and shutting the wool spikes tight when cold. The researchers actually got the idea from pinecones, which close when they become moist (or sweaty) at high temperatures, and open when the spikes dry at lower temperatures.
Scientists from Philips Research in Germany have designed underwear that uses sensors woven into the fabric to detect the wearer's heart rate. Plus, if an abnormal heart rate is detected, the underwear calls 911.
A denim jacket, designed by Emily Cooper and colleagues at MIT, doubles as a flexible music keyboard with keys that control miniature MIDI synthesizers. When a finger touches an electrode on the fabric, the contact increases the electrode's capacitance, creating the signal. Cooper has also designed a musical potholder.
Multi-Purpose Health Harness
A bio-harness developed by Zephyr can detect a wearer's heart beat, skin temperature, posture, activity and breathing rate. The harness is a flexible fabric that is worn like a sash against the skin, which the company is marketing to amateur athletes, soldiers, patients undergoing drug tests, and the elderly.
Runner's Shoe Insole
Zephyr has used the same technology to design a shoe sole that measure the size of a person's step, which part of the foot a runner pushes off from and how fast their foot hits the ground. The device is aimed at runners and patients recovering from knee or hip replacements.
A jacket developed by Nyx has built-in flexible display screens that can connect to a smartphone or PDA and display whatever message the wearer chooses. Features include scrolling words, rotating messages, and a sound detector that allows the message to pulse to the beat of the music.
In the future, it may not be so far-fetched to think about people wearing entire computers...we'll see.