Engineers at Purdue University have come up with a means of turning existing clothing, like shirts and gloves, into smart wearables capable of detecting voltages or monitoring your health — and of going through a washing machine unscathed.
“By spray-coating smart clothes with highly hydrophobic molecules, we are able to render them repellent to water, oil, and mud,” explains Assistant Professor Ramses Martinez of the team’s work. “These smart clothes are almost impossible to stain and can be used underwater and washed in conventional washing machines without damaging the electronic components sewn on their surface.”
“I envision smart clothes will be able to transmit information about the posture and motion of the wearer to mobile apps, allowing machines to understand human intent without the need of other interfaces, expanding the way we communicate, interact with devices, and play video games.”
To prove the concept, Martinez and colleagues developed a few prototype wearables. The first is a glove which doubles as a non-contact voltage sensor: Just point your finger at a cable and if it glows the cable’s live. A second prototype adds cardiac monitoring to a sweatband, making for an easy-clean fitness or health monitor.
A key part of the devices’ appeal is a lack of bulky batteries. Instead, they harvest energy from radio waves — including Wi-Fi.” Such wearable devices,” Martinez predicts, “powered by ubiquitous Wi-Fi signals, will make us not only think of clothing as just a garment that keeps us warm but also as wearable tools designed to help us in our daily life, monitor our health and protect us from accidents.”
Despite all the technology, the washable wearables are claimed to match their less-capable counterparts in the comfort stakes. “Thanks to their ultra-thin coating,” Martinez claims, “our smart clothes remain as flexible, stretchable and breathable as conventional cotton T-shirts.”
The team’s work has been published under closed-access terms in the journal Nano Energy. While Martinez and team say the technology can be fabricated in conventional clothing factories using existing large-scale sewing facilities, there’s no timescale yet provided on commercialization.