The next big innovation in fashion is electronic. Wearable, washable electronic fabric is only a few years away from going mainstream, and it could change daily life forever. The concept has been around for a while now, with prototypes in development over the last several years. Making this technology a reality is no easy feat, given the natural incompatibility of clothing and electronics, especially when it comes to washing them.
Various technologies are being used to develop these electronic clothes, such as carbon nanotubes and conductive fibers. There is already intense interest in wearable electronics, with the industry’s value projected to reach $87 billion as soon as 2024. Electronic clothing is closer than ever before to becoming publicly available, with some estimates putting mainstream release at 2025 or even 2022.
One of the most fascinating types of electronic clothing is fabric displays. Only a few years ago, taking an ultrawide TV display and making it out of flexible, washable fabric would have been possible only in science fiction.
Developers at Fudan University in China estimate that their fabric displays will be ready for the public within the next one or two years. It uses a combination of conductive and luminescent fibers to create a “display” woven into everyday cotton. These electronic fibers can cover the whole piece of fabric with light or just illuminate a single area or icon. This creates virtually limitless possibilities in fashion and clothing design. For example, a single hoodie could take on countless styles and designs.
The uses of these fabric displays go beyond light-up fashion, though. The team of researchers at Fudan University has engineered their product so it is also touch-sensitive. Exciting footage of the wearable electronics in action shows an innovative wrist display used for things like texting and following GPS maps.
This essentially takes the technology of a smartwatch and sews it right into a thin, comfortable sleeve. Touch-sensitive fabric displays could even be used as ultraportable keyboards or next-generation smart boards for schools.
One of the main motivators behind electronic clothing is the biotechnology industry. In fact, health care and wellness is the No. 1 trend driving innovation in flexible electronics today. Many scientists and medical professionals see electronic fabrics as the next generation of health monitoring technology. The potential applications of electronic fabrics in health care and biotech could save lives and help people achieve their fitness goals, all with a level of insight that simply isn’t possible with today’s smartwatches.
Companies are already producing consumer fitness products equipped with early electronic fabrics. For example, one company has created a full set of fitness clothing with wearable electronic material that can monitor the entire body’s health during a workout. This can help with everything from good blood circulation to muscle recovery.
The applications of biotech-enabled electronic fabrics are far-reaching. These clothes could be highly valuable for hospitals and caretakers, allowing patients to constantly monitor their vitals without any wires or bulky equipment.
In fact, the technology is so advantageous that the Canadian Space Agency is bidding on a Montreal-based electronic fabric company. Astronauts on the International Space Station and Virgin Galactic’s commercial space flights are wearing “Astroskin” smart fabric clothes under their spacesuits. This vastly reduces the weight and size of this apparel, allowing travelers to move more freely while still monitoring their vitals.
Fully stainproof smart clothes
The biggest challenge in electronic clothing is creating products that can stand up to water, weather and stretching. Even if the fiber is resilient to stretching, it may only survive a few wash cycles before losing conductivity. Engineers are working hard to overcome this challenge, and along the way, they’ve managed to create electronic clothes that are impossible to stain.
A team of researchers at Purdue University accomplished this while trying to create conductive fibers that were resistant to water. One beneficial side effect of this resistance is that the fibers repel even oil and mud.
This is advantageous for wearable electronics because they are still being optimized to survive more wash cycles. If the clothes can’t stain or get dirty, they won’t need to be washed as often as typical items might.
Researchers have confirmed that these fabrics are just as comfortable, as well. The material is flexible, breathable and lightweight. These everyday functionality features make it probable that electronic clothing will quickly become popular once commercially available.
The future of clothing
Electronic clothing is an exciting emerging technology, one that is on the brink of mass producibility. These wearable electronics items will be seen on streets and runways and in film and television within the next few years. Electronic fabrics will redefine the way the world thinks of screens and displays. Soon enough, it will quite literally become part of the fabric of everyday life.