One of the biggest obstacles wearable technology faces is integration. Clothes are soft, stretchy, malleable, and (for the most part) washable, while the circuity required for wearables is none of those things. The circuitry needed to make a wearable device work is rigid, bulky, and definitely not washable. Announced last year, Google’s Project Jacquard is a step towards solving this dilemma with loom-friendly fabric touch-surfaces, but you still would need traditional circuity to make it all work. It looks like Ohio State University might have a solution for that though. They have been hard at work for the past several years developing a fabric that can be sewn into custom circuits. Dubbed a functional textile (or e-textile), the thread they have created is .1mm thick and contains 7 twisted filaments made of copper and pure silver. Because it has superb conductive qualities and can be sewn into practically any shape, researchers view the material as a viable replacement for traditional circuitry. The material’s fine width means incredibly complex designs can be created.
What does this new e-textile mean? Probably nothing commercial for the time being, but in the future it could lead to wireless boosting antennas in your shirt, fitness clothes able to monitor and store your workouts, or even bandages that can report how you are healing. Because different woven patterns result in unique functionality, researchers are still working to grasp the possibilities. For example, by integrating half a dozen different interlocking geometric shapes into a circle a few inches across, a broadband antenna can be created cable of broadcasting or receiving across several different frequencies. Such antenna is estimated to cost 30 cents to create, using 10 feet of thread. It is interesting to note that compared to a previous version of the functional textile from 2 years ago, this is 24x less expensive! The researchers have already used the antenna concept to integrate a stretchable RFID antenna into a garment. Because microcontrollers and chips use technology beyond what e-textiles can currently achieve, they still need to be integrated into clothing separately. In the case of the RFID antenna, the chip was encased in rubber and attached to the garment.
Functional textiles such what Google and Ohio State are researching could have a profound effect on the future of all aspects of wearable technology, whether it is for person use, medical, or sports. Tremendous progress is being made in the field and it will be interesting to see where it might lead. The big step of the “wearable” puzzle is the creation of flexible battery that is slim, stable, safe, and powerful.