An appreciation of the advancement made in the smart performance and application of textile articles is definitely interesting for those learning and working in the areas of smart textiles, and at the same time it indicates the directions currently pursued in smart textile research and development.
The unique combination of properties like flexibility, softness, permeability, strength, thermal, and electrical resistance of textiles provides several reasons to attract the innovation interest for research and development. Such combination of properties is not seen in several other materials including metal, ceramic, plastic, wood, glass, paper etc. It has resulted in attractive interdisciplinary applications of textiles where electronic textiles are setting interesting examples. The time has come when user will see the electronics that are wearable and water- washable.
Electronic textiles (e- textiles) are the textile fabrics with electronics and interconnections woven in their structure. They possess the physical flexibility and size not known in conventional electronics. Components and interconnections are intrinsic to the fabric structure with reduced chance to be seen, tangled together or snagged by the surroundings. Thinking for electronics that can be draped over a vehicle or a tank is achievable using textile fabrics.
The use of fabric as station to deploy electrical components results in wearable electrical/ computing devices. It makes easier to move with computing devices with less consumption of human energy and efforts. Moreover the flexibility of fabric provides the opportunity to modify the shape for conforming new requirements of applications. The relative position of components including sensors, actuators, processing elements can be altered.
Research studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University indicated that future studies and advancement in the area of electronic textiles would introduce numerous applications ranging from simple computing devices to advanced protective and sensing textiles. Embedded system technologies and smart materials can be integrated and interfaced in e- textiles; such design will accommodate hardware and software applications.
The design process of an e- textile should appreciate the complexity, cost, and effectiveness of system. This process must be based on a set of percept derived from the experience and developing concepts. Software/ hardware architecture of an e- textile using defined percept would facilitate the future research, and produce applicable models. An understanding of theories, fabrics, embedded conductive threads/ fibres, and the connections in electronics and fabric are significant in producing a prototype.
Computing elements, sensors, and actuators can be seamlessly configured in known textile products such as shirts, hats, parachutes, and blankets. Sophisticated fibre technology is introducing new fibres that may function as batteries, durable wires, and speakers. The current research and innovation in e- textiles is addressing the matters in computing the infrastructure, and examining the applications. An example is the acoustic beam former that senses the presence of a large vehicle and report its position and direction of motion. The system receives acoustic data through microphones and processes it, and communicates the result to outside world or peer system.
Electronics and computer peripherals are now start coming in market and a stream of electronic items is expected to emerge that are soft, compact, flexible and portable. There are two areas where textiles and electronics are taking the directions. First the smart textile interface fabrics are adding value in electronics. In the other area, electronics are enhancing the functional textiles; for example the sensor and communication technology are used in protective wear, out door sports, children wear, and medical applications.
The idea of developing wearable computer can be more simplified through the advancement in e- textiles; and from kids to officers- all may hope to see light- weight, comfortable, and easy- to- wear clothing in the market using in- built CPU. Light- weight laptop system can be made even lighter when replacing plastic key boards with smart fabric key board.
Smart fabric control devices are increasingly becoming the part of electronic items, and offer added value in the performance for the end- user. The patented achievement of Eleksen called 'Eleck Tex' is a laminate of textile fabric layers (0.6 mm thick) producing flexible touch sensor. The in- built sensor can detect where and how hard it was pressed. This is a washable product used in several consumer applications. Handheld PCs, smart phones, personal digital assistants are the some examples where wireless key board fabric may be used.
ElekTexR technology can be used by the product designers to produce control for electronic devices that are soft, light weight, flexible, washable, and wearable. Its applications range from wearable electronic control for consumer electronics and industrial wear to light- weight, low- power touch interfaces for telematics, military, transportation, and space suits. It may replace the hard touch pads, flexi- circuits, and polymer switches which do not find wider uses in growing demand of wearable electronics.
The sensor woven/ embedded in the sleeves of jackets or straps of rucksacks provides easy- to- wear control for mobile phones, headphones, or microphones. Elek Tex may also provide electronic accessories including in- built speaker or volume control.
Performance of material creates application, and application brings the business. This seems happening when Microsoft Corporation selected Eleksen, UK based manufacturer of smart fabric interfaces, to design and manufacture the peripherals for the Ultra- Mobile PCs.
The business interest in the innovative 'smart fabric' developed by Eleksen for electronic devices has been realised, and private equity investors have made an investment of 4 million. The fund will be used to support expansion and working capital to meet the desired sales growth. The range of applications for the innovative Eleksen technology is significant and the funding would hopefully make a difference in its market.
The diversity in the application of electronic textiles (e- textiles) is increasing and becoming interesting. The textile clothes, being light- weight, strong and bendable, can be stretched over any frame into desired shape. Electronic wires and sensors woven into fabric can perform the function of listening faint sound. That means people resting in tents or camouflage net may hear the distant sounds of vehicles or steeping/ movement of people, animals, enemies etc.
Thinking for a jacket or hat that can alert the wearer when someone (friend or enemy!) is coming from the back; or having night wears that wakes you up when fire approaching wouldn't be impossible using e- textiles.
The sensors and associated connecting wires generate pattern of information that can be translated by computer software into images which enable the user to determine the location of detected sounds. There are e- textiles systems that do not produce detectable energy and require less power then radio- wave- operated systems.
Sound detection is only one application of e- textile system, fabric may be woven with sensors that can detect chemicals, materials, and satellite signals etc. The interest and investment in research and innovation are introducing more types of such smart- applications.
The increasing exploration in the performance of smart textiles will continue to grow, and the interdisciplinary applications will be gaining more interest for innovation and development. Optimistically the future is bright for e- textiles.
1. Zahi S. Nakad, Ph. D thesis 'Architectures for e- Textiles', Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, (2003), (USA).
2. Home page, http://www.ccm.ece.vt.edu/etextiles/ , accessed June 2006.
3. Mark Jones, Tom Martin, Zahi Nakad, Ravi Shenoy, Tanwir Sheikh, David Lehn, Joshua Edmison, Mahup Chandra, IEEE Vehicular Technology Conference 2003, Symposium on Wireless Ad hoc, Sensor, and Wearable Networks (VTC 2003), (USA), Oct 2003.
4. Z. Nakad, M. Jones, T. Martin, The 2003 International Conference on Communication in Computing (CIC 2003), (USA), (June 2003), pp. 37- 43.
5. Home page, http://www.technical-textiles.net , accessed April 2006.
6. Home page, http://www.futurepundit.com , accessed May 2006.