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Fabricating the future

By Lori ValigraSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 29, 2002


Maggie Orth hunches over a sewing machine in her studio, carefully stitching a tiny piece of plaid cloth.

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But the new mother isn't making a baby outfit. Instead, she's creating an interactive wall hanging of fabric interlaced with electronics and special dyes. The finished product: textile art that changes colors in programmed sequence.

Dr. Orth's new technology is part of an emerging wave: weaving all sorts of intelligence into textiles, including the ability to detect dangerous chemicals, sanitize themselves, and serve as communication networks. Applications run the gamut, from health and sporting goods to sophisticated combat uniforms.

It's a field – variously known as smart fabrics, e-textiles, wearable computers, or intelligent textiles – that many anticipate will become one of the next hot drivers of the American economy. Advocates also expect it to propel technology forward in general, because its applications are so diverse.

"It is a much different way of thinking about a digital or computer medium," says Orth, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab and cofounder of a company called International Fashion Machines in Cambridge, Mass. "Electronic textiles still are at a 'black art' stage. But this industry is in a growth period."

Orth says some of the technology will begin to be commercialized within the next three years.

"Society in the next 10 to 15 years will involve people being surrounded by electronic gadgets with ambient intelligence," says Werner Weber, senior director of corporate research and emerging technologies at Infineon Technologies AG of Munich, Germany. The firm is developing electronics to be used in smart textile applications for consumers. "The wearable electronics will be woven in, so customers don't have to think about manuals."

Orth's company is working on a technology called "electronic plaid." The fabric contains electronic wires and tiny capsules of a special thermochromatic ink that get darker or lighter as they are heated or cooled.

As the wrinkles get smoothed out of the technology, it could be used in shoes, jewelry, or handbags with designs that change colors. Cubicle walls, point-of-purchase signs, and even camouflage fabrics for the military are other possible applications.

In the more distant future, it might even be possible to change the color of a pair of pants from dark to white if, say, you are traveling from a cold to a hot climate.

Currently, the electronics can control up to 64 yarns at a time, each able to turn light or dark. "We're working on getting each to turn a third color," Orth says, noting the large variety of colors that would allow.

Listen to your jacket

If some products would make a visual impression, others might catch your attention through sound. Infineon Technologies, a major semiconductor productmaker, has helped develop an experimental jacket with an integrated MP3 player. A flexible woven inch-wide ribbon carries sound to the MP3 player's headphones. A more integrated MP3 version of the jacket is in the works. Such electronic ribbon also might be used for wireless communications, for example, to locate a hiker trapped under snow in an avalanche.

Another main project for the company is developing new technology that can use body heat as a low-power energy source that might be able to run a watch.