CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — Maggie Orth hunches over a sewing machine in her studio, carefully stitching a tiny piece of plaid cloth.
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.
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.
Miniature thermogenerators can exploit the few degrees of difference between the outside temperature of the human body and the surrounding air by converting the heat into electrical energy, Dr. Weber explains.
The technological possibilities for fabric are, of course, of great interest to the US military. The armed forces have been experimenting with weaving computer and communications technology into uniforms. Future combat dress also might keep soldiers warm and fight off germs, and eventually detect and fight chemical and other dangerous agents.
Much of the smart-fabric, "soldier of the future" research is centered at the US Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass. There, scientists and technologists are tackling a variety of textiles that can transport power and information. One example is a soldier sticking his or her intelligent glove finger into water to see if it is safe to drink. The soldier could communicate with others either by a fabric keyboard that might be unrolled from the pocket of a uniform, or simply sewn or woven in as part of the uniform's sleeve.
If electronics and optical technologies could be integrated successfully into textiles, there could be a striking improvement in battlefield communications.
One such project, the Battle Dress Uniform, gives soldiers camouflage and environmental protection, but it also may become a wearable electronic network to send and receive data.
The Soldier Systems Center already has collaborated with Foster-Miller Inc., a Waltham, Mass., engineering and technology company, to develop a fabric-based version of a Universal Serial Bus cable. USB cables are in common use in today's office and household computers to connect to the Internet, among other things. Normally stiff, heavy, and coated with plastic, the USB cable has been transformed into something thin, flexible, and wearable with flat connectors.
Embedding electronics into clothing used in harsh, dangerous environments is no small task. Already, a combat-ready soldier carries 35 pounds or more of weapons and provisions, and each new technology, whether it be a head-mounted display or an antenna that runs up the soldier's back or around his or her waist as a long belt, adds weight. Such new technology potentially could double the load for today's combat soldier. That's one of the reasons lightweight and flat fabric technology is of such keen interest to the military.
Future-warrior systems include global positioning systems, combat identification sensors, monitors, chemical detectors, and electronically controlled weapons, all connected to the soldier's computer to provide instant access to information.
But getting the wires, and more futuristic technologies such as optics, into uniforms and smart vests, and making them easy to use, is challenging. Wires must be flexible enough to be comfortable, carry signals, be safe to the soldier, and not give away his or her position, which is why the Natick group is shying away from wireless technologies and leaning toward "wiring" soldiers.
Optical technologies must use cables that do not bend much, because the signal will be interrupted. And then there are the connectors that attach the wires among the various computing devices so they can communicate.
"The goal is to provide the soldier with executable functions that require the fewest possible actions on his or her part to initiate a response to a situation in combat by using intelligent textiles," says James Fairneny, an electrical engineer and project manager at the Natick lab.
Mr. Fairneny's group is looking at different ways to make electronic equipment more integral to textiles, and then to manufacture them. Much of the technology is at least six to eight years away from practical use, he says.
"We need to make the antennae and other electronics as unobtrusive as possible to the soldier," he says, adding that the new technologies will require training for use.
The US Army also is collaborating with MIT, having recently promised the university $50 million for a new Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies. The aim is to improve soldiers' protection and ability to survive using new tiny technologies to detect threats, and automatically treat some medical conditions.
The Army isn't the only branch of the military actively developing smart textiles. The US Navy funded a project in 1996 that eventually turned into the Smart Shirt, a product commercialized by SensaTex Inc. in Atlanta, with technology from Georgia Tech Research Corp. The T-shirt functions like a computer, with optical and conductive fibers integrated into the garment. It can monitor the vital signs, such as heart rate and breathing, of wearers, including law enforcement officers, military personnel, astronauts, infants, and elderly people living alone.
But for consumers, antibacterial and antimicrobial polymers may end up having the broadest applications. These new materials could find their way into everything from socks and children's clothing to soldiers' uniforms, and from surgical gowns to countertops and refrigerators that can fight off germs.
Gregory Tew, assistant professor in the department of polymer science and engineering at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and his colleagues are devising molecules that act in much the same way as cells in the human body to combat germs. In addition to embedding such molecules, called polymers and oligomers, into clothing, they could be put into paints and coatings. This could, for example, keep barnacles from adhering to vessels, and prevent ceramic tiles in the bathroom from mildewing.
"We think we can make a material that will be cost-effective and nontoxic," says Dr. Tew. "And it will be resistant to water and detergents. It has the potential to keep surfaces and materials permanently antiseptic."
The College of Textiles at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, has been working on a flame-retardant compound that could be used in children's clothing or toys, as well as soldiers' uniforms or even Formula One car racing suits.
Alan Tonelli, professor of polymer science at the college, says one application could be spraying polymer-based clothing onto emergency workers going into a fire or dangerous chemical spill almost like spraying on a cocoon of protective fabric that later could be removed.
"Body scanners already can measure and make a garment to fit you perfectly," Dr. Tonelli says. "But we could put this into a portable machine for a hazardous-materials crew, or even use it to cover up a dangerous spill in the future."
Making smart fabrics affordable, workable, and user friendly is still some years off, most in the field acknowledge. But one thing is certain. When they arrive, people will think twice before balling up their dirty "smart clothes" and throwing them on the floor.