Smart clothes revolutionize attire

Published: Jul 17, 2008 1:00:00 AM
Media Contact: Jessica Franklin,

Source: The Auburn Plainsman

Student checking pulse

Gwynodolyn Mowbray: a junior in architecture, checks her pulse while walking. Smart clothes are designed to monitor the body's vital signs. The clothing reviews change in body temperature, respiration or heart rate. Some types can transmit light from the front to the back.

Imagine an outfit that fits perfectly and eliminates the worry of sweat stains and body odor. Oh, and it plays your favorite music.

It's an idea that's not far off in the future.

New fabrics are being developed that can regulate body temperature, conduct electricity, play music, fight bacteria and odor, repel insects, soothe dry skin and have the capacity to custom shape themselves for your body. These new "smart fabrics" have medical and military purposes as well.

The Smart Shirt was originally developed about 15 years ago by Sundaresan Jayaraman, a professor at Georgia Tech. Smart shirts have flexible circuit boards woven into the fabric. Small sensors in contact with the skin send radio signals to the circuit board, where they are analyzed and transmitted to a control center.

Dr. Gwynedd Thomas, associate professor for Polymer and Fiber Engineering, currently works with developing new nanotechnology, the science that created the Smart Shirt. She said the technology is currently marketed to the military, but could be available to the general public in the future.

The Smart Shirt monitors the body's vital signs. When a soldier is injured, the shirt monitors a change in body temperature, respiration or heart rate and automatically sends a signal back to headquarters. The wounded can be picked up within minutes and have a much higher chance of survival.

Another form of smart fabric has variations in optical properties. Some can transmit light from the front or back, making the wearer reflect their environment like a chameleon.

According to Thomas, smart fabric with optical properties is being seriously looked at by military research groups.

"Wearers of the optical smart fabric are invisible to the naked eye because they look exactly like their environment," Thomas said. "That's the best camouflage you can get."

An early responsive material was transition lenses for sunglasses. Molecules inside the glass are transparent enough to see through, but react to ultraviolet light by changing color.

Smart fabrics are also used as a drug delivery system. Medical bandages meter out the amount of a drug needed by the body and deliver it automatically.

Traumatic wounds can be treated with a special bandage that dispenses the medicine directly onto the wound with the exact prescribed dosage. This technology is being used experimentally in the United States.

Critical heart patients, people prone to stroke and severe diabetics are just a few examples of people who could all benefit from medical application of smart fabrics.

Laura Charlton, a senior in early childhood education, says she is not convinced the benefits are worth the risks.

"The technology is amazing, but it's a little scary too," Charlton said.

Thomas said some research groups are working on an idea to build electronics into clothing. Cell phones, PDAs, information storage devices and circuitry are interwoven into the fabric.

Various approaches to developing computerized clothing are still being explored, but the basic idea is to weave metallic threads that can carry an electrical current into the fabric. Resistors, capacitors, coils and other necessary components are sewn or soldered onto the fabric.

Related to the science of smart fabrics are Shape Memory Polymers, or smart materials. Developed by Auburn University engineers. Shape memory polymers are able to remember and recover their original shape after being manipulated.

After being deformed, they can completely recover their original shape if exposed to a specific stimulus, according to Dr. Maria Auad, assistant professor in Polymer and Fiber Engineering.

Nanotechnology is used to construct shape memory particles. The qualities of the polymers are altered so various geometrical aspects of their character will be displayed, according to their reaction to the environment. There is nothing magical about them — they work on the same electrochemical properties any other molecule works with.

Several different applications with this material are being researched. Temperature is the primary stimulus of shape memory polymers, but magnetic particles and light are being researched as other options. A magnetic field as a stimulus could have great medical applications.

Auad said her team conceives the ideas and develops the materials. It is up to other companies to envision the final application for consumer products.

One example is a shape memory spoon developed by Mitsubishi. After being heated, the handle becomes malleable. When it cools, the spoon is shaped for your hand. "That could be a great concept when applied to shoes," Auad said.

For textile application, shape memory polymers can be used to make an outfit that can remember your figure.

"Essentially, you can create an outfit that can shape your body," Auad said.

Shape memory polymers can become functional garments with aesthetic benefits for the wearer. They offer greater comfort because they respond easily to body heat and moisture, along with retaining the clothing's shape and appearance.