Emerging Technology

Welcome to the fashionable world of digitized duds (batteries not included).

By Steven Johnson|Saturday, March 04, 2006
RELATED TAGS: GADGETS, SENSORS, ELECTRONICS

At the dawn of civilization, clothing incorporated the most advanced technology on the planet. Constructed with spare parts supplied by nature, early garments offered quality-of-life improvements that were magical in their effects. They kept us warm, dry, and sometimes camouflaged. But soon enough, more impressive technologies arrived: wheels, plows, digital watches. Clothes lost their veneer of technology. Now they're more likely to be thought of as receptacles for our technology—how many iPods, cell phones, and BlackBerries can you fit in a single pair of pants?

That's about to change as two trends intersect: Digital processors are getting impossibly cheap, and new experimental materials can carry digital signals. Rub those two sticks together long enough and the era of smart clothes is bound to happen.

The most celebrated example to date is the Adidas_1 running shoe, released in March of last year. A second generation, intelligence level 1.1, followed close on its heels this past November. It's fitting that the smart clothes revolution should begin with athletic shoes, since they have long been considered the highest-tech apparel on the market. The current rage among 5-year-olds is sneakers tricked out with flashing LED displays, which can make the average kindergarten classroom look like the Vegas strip. But the practical technology of athletic shoes ultimately revolves around cushioning: how to protect the bones from violent collision with the earth.

Different cushioning needs are produced by various forms of activity, ranging from the direct, downward impact of jumping versus the lighter impact of sprinting. Surface conditions also come into play. Think of running on a grass tennis court as opposed to returning backhands on a playground asphalt court. The general philosophy of the shoe business has been to optimize different models to different needs.

Then Adidas set out to build a shoe that could do it all—adapt on the fly to changing circumstances. The sneaker would be more than foam and rubber: You'd have an information processor that could react to the external world and alter itself based on feedback. With each step of the Adidas_1, magnetic sensors report compression levels to a microprocessor, taking 1,000 readings a second. The chip calculates the ideal cushioning level and dispatches its orders to a motor. The wearer then senses the cushioning support of the shoe either tighten up or soften, depending on the conditions. Annoyingly, a battery is required to power both the microprocessor and the electric motor that adjusts the cushioning in the heel, but at least the shoe is smart enough to turn itself off when it's not in use.

In mid-2006, Adidas plans to roll out the second line in the smart shoe family, this one targeted for basketball players. Surface hardness doesn't change much in basketball, whether the hoops are indoors or outdoors, but styles of play can vary dramatically. Running involves quick, regular compression of the shoe, while landing after a jump compresses the shoe in a sharp, extreme fashion. Cutting, by contrast, triggers a longer but equally extreme compression. The Adidas_1 Basketball is designed to build a profile of the playing style of its owner. If you're a speedy point guard, the shoe will optimize for running and cutting; if you're a center who spends most of the game pulling down rebounds, the shoe will adjust its cushioning to handle the impact of jumping. The feedback of the Adidas shoes focuses on the wearer's relationship to externals: changes in surfaces, changes in movement patterns.

But smart clothes can also peer inward. A number of organizations—including the U.S. Navy, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and a company called SensaTex—have created smart shirts that monitor the vital signs of the wearer, including heart rate, body temperature, and respiration rate. One shirt made by VivoMetrics is used to track the state of people who suffer from sleep apnea, and the same technology could readily be adapted as a sensor for sleeping infants to help avoid sudden infant death syndrome. In 2004 Francis Tay, a mechanical engineering professor in Singapore, invented the MEMSwear device—a tiny silicon-based sensor embedded in a shirt that notices if the wearer has a fall and then communicates an alert to a cell phone or computer via the wireless Bluetooth standard. Even underwear is ready for a hardware upgrade, with a high-tech sports bra released this year by Textronics leading the way. The bra relies on a new conductive fabric that tracks heartbeats and transmits the information wirelessly to a wristwatch display.

There's a precedent of sorts for the smart-clothes revolution. Think of all the intelligent technologies that have become standard in our automobiles over the past decade or so: antilock braking systems, air bags, OnStar, and new collision-detection technologies. Until recently the sensors and microprocessors involved in those systems were too clunky and power-hungry to embed in a piece of clothing. But the pace of miniaturization has changed, and 10 years from now, our bodies may well be monitored and protected by more digital systems than are featured in a state-of-the-art Mercedes today. Once clothing becomes just another piece of networked digital hardware, all sorts of possibilities open up.

Parents will no doubt be early adopters, concocting a vast new set of ways to monitor their children's well-being remotely. Technologies that now seem appropriate for the old and infirm may well become routine for healthy adults. It may seem extreme to wire yourself up with a personal OnStar-like system that will automatically call authorities if you've been shot, but if the cost drops down to 25 cents a shirt, who knows how many will sign up?

Smart clothes should eventually free you from having to look at a computer screen for vital information. Imagine shoes that could reconcile your current location with a MapQuest-generated list of directions for walking to a destination. The shoes could be outfitted with tiny feedback mechanisms that would guide your feet to move left, right, forward, and backward. Instead of walking down the street awkwardly while trying to read a map, you'd simply stroll along and let your shoes lead the way, signaling each turn with slight taps of pressure. Smart signaling has the added advantage of being imperceptible to people around you. My personal vote for the best idea in smart clothes is a sensor that tracks the identities of the people standing around me at a cocktail party and automatically—but silently—alerts me if I happen to be standing next to someone I've met before, not to mention telling me the person's name. I'll know the revolution has arrived when I no longer have to suffer the embarrassment of introducing myself to someone who turns out to be one of my former college roommates.

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