Solar bikinis, auto-fit undies: Clothes go hi-tech

Last updated 00:00 01/01/2009

If you thought Maxwell Smart's shoe phone was a hoot, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Exciting progress in the booming, intelligent clothing and textiles industry means mobile-phone shirts (just speak into the collar) and socks that mend themselves could soon be a reality.

Meanwhile, iPod-playing suits and clothes that change size and shape to fit the wearer are already here.

Such garments are set to become part of our daily wardrobes as advances in smart fabrics mean our clothes will do more than just preserve our modesty, protect us from the elements, or, for some of us, make a fashion statement.

In recent years, smart clothing has progressed significantly from wearable computers - where devices such as MP3 players or mobile phones are seamlessly integrated into clothing - to "intelligent" fabrics and clothes that can conduct electricity, change shape and even colour.

"The world is your oyster when it comes to the sorts of things you can do with clothing and technology. You're only limited by your imagination, really," says Dr Adam Best, a research scientist at the CSIRO division of energy technology, who has developed a shirt that produces electricity simply by being moved, such as when the wearer is walking.

The power shirts - or flexible, integrated-energy devices - are basically wearable batteries that charge whenever the person moves.

While they are being developed for military purposes - for energy supply for soldiers in the field - Best says they could be used to power mobile phones, portable music players and other small electrical devices.

"The technology basically enables you to get rid of the battery as we know it and will open up a whole new world for designers to put things in places that have merely been the realm of science fiction, so to speak," he says.

"So, for example, you could quite easily build a device into your shirt, where your shirt literally becomes a mobile phone or iPod."

Dr Richard Helmer, of the CSIRO's Textile and Fibre Technology division, agrees.

"Our clothing has the potential to play a very different role going into the future," he says.

"There are people all over the world engineering all sorts of different functionality into clothing, from sensing things to doing things, to self-cleaning, all sorts of things."

Helmer recently developed an "air-guitar" or a wearable-instrument shirt.

With sensors embedded in the sleeves, the shirt can detect and interpret the air-guitarist's arm movements, wirelessly transmitting that information to a computer, which generates the appropriate sounds.

Helmer says the same technology could be adapted for uses from medical rehabilitation and sports training to virtual computer games.

"You can use it for all sorts of things from interactive computer games to things like dance classes where you could wear an item of clothing that could tell you whether your technique or posture or whatever was correct. The possibilities are limitless really."

Helmer says that while military, medical and other industrial uses have driven a lot of the early research and development into intelligent clothing, more commercial applications for the technology are expected.

"Clothes are something that people wear around the clock and I can't see that changing in the next 100 years or so. So, to use that as a platform for new technology is really very exciting."

Smart clothing at a glance

Auto-fit clothing Electronics giant Philips has developed the ultimate in one-size-fits-all clothing that could spell the end of the "Sorry, we don't have your size" dilemma for ever.

They have come up with a way to change the size and shape of clothing so that it fits the wearer perfectly.

The fabric is woven with so-called "muscle wires" that are made up of shape-memory alloys that expand to just the right size when a current is passed through them. Once the electricity is removed, they remain exactly the right size.

Philips says the technology could work for a variety of garments - from trousers to shirts, socks and jocks.

Hug Shirt Nominated by Time as one of the best inventions of last year, the Hug Shirt enables the wearer to send "virtual hugs" to loved ones from across the street or across the globe, simply by using their mobile phone.

When a friend sends you a virtual hug, your mobile phone notifies the shirt wirelessly, via Bluetooth.

The fully washable shirt then re-creates that person's distinctive cuddle, replicating his or her warmth, pressure, duration and even heartbeat.

iPod suit Earlier this year, British retail giant Marks & Spencer became the first retailer to sell the iPod suit. The suit - a collaboration between British smart-fabric specialist Eleksen and innovative tailors Bagir - features Eleksen's smart-fabric, touchpad technology that transforms the lapel into a five-button electronic control panel.

 The pad is then attached to a cable that runs beneath the lining of the jacket and plugs into the iPod, which has its own inside pocket. The lapels even have loops to hold and hide the earphones. The suit retails for about $350.

Solar bikini New Yorker Andrew Schneider is the brains behind the solar bikini that charges your iPod while you sunbathe.

The bikini is covered with 40 flexible photovoltaic (solar) cells that feed into a USB connection that can plug straight into your iPod. Schneider says two hours of sunbaking is enough to charge an iPod shuffle.

And, for the guys, Schneider is also developing solar-panel shorts, which, with the extra sun-capturing area, will be capable of generating enough power to chill a beer.

Smart shoes - Nike Air Zoom Moire Last year, Apple and Nike joined forces to launch a pair of smart running shoes that can tell the wearer how far they've run and how many calories they've burnt.

The Nike + system is made up of a tiny transmitter that is slipped into the shoes and sends information to the iPod nano with each step.

The information can be heard through voiced progress reports and can also be downloaded on to a computer later for a complete record of time, distance, pace and calories burnt. The runner can also call up a pre-chosen "power song" to play when they need a motivational boost.

Lumalive clothing Researchers at Philips Research have figured out how to integrate fabric and light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that can display text, graphics or even animation on clothing.

These could be used for promotional and advertising purposes, but safety applications could include visibility of emergency services crew or road workers. Or perhaps it could be used as a showy form of texting in a noisy bar.

This technology differs from fabrics being developed in Britain that emit light. Clothes made from such electroluminescent yarns enable the wearer to be permanently visible and therefore improve personal safety for joggers, cyclists and pedestrians.

Self-healing clothes Researchers are working on developing smart synthetic systems that not only sense the presence of a defect in a fabric, but work to heal the damaged area. Such self-healing materials would significantly extend the lifetime, utility and durability of clothing and other products.

3rd Space vest The 3rd Space vest is embedded with pneumatic cells that allow computer gamers to physically feel game events such as getting hit, stabbed, or punched.

The technology was designed by a US surgeon as a way to give medical exams via the internet to those in isolated communities with limited access to medical services.

The medical version is used to poke and press patients' bodies remotely and get feedback on what they are feeling.

Smart Bra Scientists at the University of Bolton in Britain have developed a so-called "smart bra" that will allow users to detect early-stage breast cancer.

The smart bra employs microwave antennas that pick up abnormal temperature changes in breast tissue, which are associated with cancer cells.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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