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Wearable computers: Marty McFly, meet your jacket

Clothing will not just be embedded with devices, but actually will be devices, from belly band fetal monitors to shirts that charge your cell phone to dresses that release insecticide on command.

By Denise ChowLiveScience Staff Writer / May 7, 2013

Garments created in the Textiles Nanotechnology Laboratory at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. The brown and blue dress on the left was produced without any pigments or dyes. Researchers are merging nanoscience and fashion design to color garments without using any dyes, and to add antibacterial properties to clothing.

Juan Hinestroza / Cornell University / LiveScience

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NEW YORK

Imagine if your shirt could track your heart rate as you run, or if it could charge your cellphone on the go. Innovative fashion designers and engineers, who are pushing the envelope with "smart textiles," dream of designing garments that are not just embedded with devices, but actually are the devices. Welcome to the world of wearable computing.

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The development of smart textiles is a true fusion of fashion and technology. From manipulating nanoparticles in cotton, to incorporating knit antennas and transistors into garments, the computational fashion industry is reimagining how we use clothing in our everyday lives.

"Can garments become the actual device?" said Genevieve Dion, assistant professor and director of the Shima Seiki Haute Technology Laboratory at Drexel University in Philadelphia. "My dream is to have nothing hard on [clothing], and no batteries that need to be put into the garment, no small pods that need to go into the pocket. Is it possible? Maybe."

Dion was one of four speakers at an event on computational fashion held May 1 here at the Eyebeam Art+Technology Center in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood.

Dion and her colleagues are developing a "belly band" to monitor fetal growth for women facing high-risk pregnancies. The band, knit with conductive yarn and outfitted with a fabric antenna, can transmit radio signals to a pregnant woman's physician, providing around-the-clock, real-time data on the health of the mother and unborn baby.

The band is much more comfortable than current fetal-monitoring devices and can be worn throughout a woman's pregnancy, Dion added.

At the Shima Seiki Haute Technology Lab, engineers and designers are also investigating new ways to digitally fabricate knit garments. The researchers use special software to design pieces of clothing, which are then manufactured by state-of-the-art computerized knitting machines. The process, Dion said, is essentially the fashion industry's take on 3D printing.

Already, the digital models and the resulting prototypes are "remarkably close," she said.

At Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., scientists and fashion designers are working at the intersection of textiles and nanoscience, essentially creating new materials or reworking existing ones.

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