It is of no science-fiction now that a fabric you are wearing is monitoring your health, alerting you in case of any health-related criticality, giving a measurement of the chemical components of your body fluids and what not. With the faster pace of innovation in technology, the features mentioned above is becoming possible. So, as you can guess that we are talking about electronic textile or e-textile, a thriving avenue benefitting traditional textile applications and adding momentum to smart textile.
As defined by E-Textile Research Group: “Electronic textiles are fabrics that have electronics and interconnected woven into them, with physical flexibility and size that cannot be achieved with existing electronic manufacturing techniques. Components and interconnections are intrinsic to the fabric and thus are less visible and not susceptible to becoming tangled together or snagged by the surroundings.” In short, these electronics are woven into the fabric to make e-textile wearable for us. It is considered as an interdisciplinary field of research as it is bringing information technology, microsystems, materials and textiles under a single platform. Evidently, wearable electronic textiles arena has been generating increased demand and untapped opportunities, result from rising consumer demand specifically for lightweight electronic devices integrated with clothing.
Tracing back to its inception, it all started with designers and engineers during the end of the 19th century, who began to combine electricity with clothing and jewelry. They developed a series of illuminated and motorized necklaces, hats, broaches, and costumes. Interestingly, during late 1800s, one could hire young women adorned in light-studded evening gowns from the Electric Girl Lighting Company to provide cocktail party entertainment.
In 1968, the Museum of Contemporary Craft in New York City organized an out-of-the-box exhibition titled “Body Covering”. The exhibition was focused on the synergy between technology and apparel. The exhibition interestingly featured astronauts’ space suits along with dresses that could light up, heat and cool all by itself. What attracted everyone’s attention and gained praise was the collection of work by Diana Dew. The designer amazed the audiences as she exhibited a line of electronic fashion, including electroluminescent party dresses and belts that could sound alarm sirens.
Another instance is noteworthy: During mid of the 1990s, a team of MIT researchers led by Steve Mann, Thad Starner, and Sandy Pentland developed something which they termed as wearable computers. These devices consisted of computer hardware that can be attached to and carried on the surface part of the human body.
However, the design encountered some critical flaws in terms of technical, social, and design areas. In response to this, another group at MIT, that included Maggie Orth and Rehmi Post, began to dig deeper on how such devices might be more conveniently integrated into clothing and other soft elements. The team made some commendable development in their exploration. Noteworthy were their success in integrating digital electronics with conductive fabrics and developing a method for embroidering electronic circuits.
All these efforts led to the fullest development of the modern-day e-textile. Now, all over the world, innovations in this emerging area are much more evident. Recently, scientists have developed the much-talked wireless keyboard fabric called ‘ Eleck Tex’ a form of e-textile. This electronic textile is just 0.6 mm thick and being used in handheld PCs, personal digital assistants and smartphones. This cloth is light in weight, wearable and washable. Another efficient e-textile has been developed by Virginia Tech (VT) researchers. This electronic textile can observe your movements that including walking, running, sitting, or standing.
Furthermore, e-textile has quite a large application in the narrow fabric industry. Evidently, e-textile webbings are used extensively to transfer data, power and as input devices. It is worth mentioning that famous brands are already in the process of piloting the potential of e-textile in their respective areas.
For instance, Google and Levi’s are partnering up to deliver textures that can direct power. Interestingly, experiencing the option to make a call with one’s mobile phone by contacting his/her jeans, or turning on your sound speakers with the button of one’s shirt. As some of you may know that the German men’s national football team in 2014 FIFA World Cup wore smart jerseys designed by Adidas. The jersey had the feature to track players’ performance metrics, distance, speed, acceleration, power and heart rate.
So, e-textiles are indeed a blessing in this competitive world as this technologically advanced concept has applications in many fields ranging from IT to many more. Considering its enormous potential, e-textiles will have an important role to play in the fields of medicine, safety and protection. Currently, the industry is still emerging, and companies interested in this area will improve their chance of success if they are aware of the challenges they face from technical, business, regulatory and marketing perspectives.
The views expressed are personal.