Feature Story

Why Smart Fabric is the Clothing of the Future

by Melissa Jun Rowley

A look at how smart fabric is taking wearables to the next level.

A new kind of wearable has made its way onto the market, and it’s closer to the skin than any headset, watch or wristband. Smartclothing, made from sensor-based smart fabric, could redefine the connected fitness and health industries and beyond. This is a fundamental part of the mission of the Smart Sensing Consortium, which gave birth to a smart fabric prototype in 2012, and launched the French smart fabric development company Cityzen Sciences in 2008. 

By embedding micro-sensors directly within material, it measures the body’s heat and movement in the best location can be achieved. Closely connected to Cityzen Sciences, Cityzen Data analyzes data for sports, health and wellness markets, and has built a smart fabric data management platform. Cityzen Data CTO and former Googler Mathias Herberts says sensor-based fabric is ideal for understanding the human body. While belts and other wearables move in different angles and directions as the body moves, compressed fabric stays put.

See Also: Move Over Wearables, Make Room for Invisibles

“We see fabric as a matrix for positioning sensors that will measure specific quantities at exactly the right spot,” says Herberts. “Take for example the first Cityzen Sciences product, the D-shirt, which can record a person’s heart rate, GPS location and speed. It has the sensors for the EKG where exactly they should be for optimal measurement. That’s very different from other sensory integration.”

The fabric is also used to connect all the different sensors to a central point where the data will be collected. No stranger to data analysis, Herberts made sure services such as Gmail and Google Docs worked properly while holding post at Google.

“I was exposed to data manipulation before it was called big data,” says Herberts.

So how are sensors made small enough to embed into fabric?

In order to put sensors into fabric, they need to washable and miniaturized. This requires sensors that can be washed several times and do not need to be reloaded with chemicals. There are some sensors that need chemicals to be at a certain level for them to measure something. That is not the type of sensor you want to put into fabric.  Herberts say miniaturizing sensors is an ongoing process. Cityzen Sciences has reached a point where the sensors are a few millimeters wide and are enclosed in a gel silicone so they can withstand the washing. The goal is to miniaturize the sensors even more so they can be directly sewn at the thread level—something the company is working on bringing to fruition in the next 18 months.

For obvious reasons, the sports and wellness markets have been the first to adopt smart fabric technology. But other industries can benefit, as well.

What other industries can smart fabric potentially penetrate?

Personal protective equipment, which is designed mainly for workers on oil rigs and in agricultural fields, calls for clothes that can raise the level of awareness around exposure to chemicals and other environmental stresses.

“There are a lot of opportunities in this field, especially in France,” says Herberts. “There is a law [in France] that says that an employer is responsible for measuring the body stress that the worker endures due to their work. So there is a lot of room to create garments that will measure various levels of exposure to harmful factors and generate a passport for every worker that will follow the worker throughout his career.”

See Also: Wearables and the Next Gen Wardrobe

Micro-sensor fabric could also benefit the military. Intelligent Textiles Ltd., created a different kind of smart fabric—a flexible circuit board that dramatically decreases the amount of batteries a soldier has to carry into combat. The company has worked with organizations in the UK to develop products and has received interest from the US Army and US Marine Corps.

Another kind of smart fabric created by researchers in South Korea can harness static electricity to power wearable devices. Imagine what people could do with clothing like this in times of emergency when no external energy sources are in sight.

Smart fabric can play a crucial role in any industry that relies on the health of the human body because fabric at its best has what the healthiest bodies possess—precision and flexibility.

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