Monday, January 20, 2003

E-textiles still not cloth

...While they discussed woven fabrics that can process environmental and biomedical data, researchers admitted that current e-textiles are too brittle to wear. "I'm sick of looking at e-textiles that are circuits, and not textiles," said Maggie Orth, CEO of International Fashion Machines, an MIT Media Lab startup that develops e-textiles for military and civilian use. The conductive fibers in wearable circuits must be able to bend and bunch just like any other article of clothing, Orth said. "Something that bends a little before it breaks isn't a textile," she said. Tugging at her sweater, she added, "This is a textile." Orth urged engineers to develop conductive materials, including organics, that can bend without breaking, and can also take the pounding of a sewing machine needle. Still another obstacle to e-textile development, said IFM's Orth, is the lack of flexible display technologies. IFM is talking to Nike about a sneaker that tells runners how fast they're moving. "We have the means," said Orth, "to collect and transmit the data, but not to display it."

"E-textiles may be more practical for industrial design than for wearing. According to researchers from DARPA, e-textiles would be as useless on today's battlefield as a suit of armor."

"DARPA researcher Elana Ethridge described how e-textiles might instead be used in a precision-guided battlefield parafoil that uses variable porosity and a pneumatic spoiler to adapt to shifting winds and temperatures. Ethridge also proposed putting sensors in walkways and buildings to detect the presence of biochemical agents and trigger the shutdown of contaminated areas. In earthquake zones, Ethridge added, embedded sensors could monitor the structural integrity of buildings and other structures."

"What we are not going to do is put a laptop in our jackets. We don't want to compete with CMOS," said Robert Graybill, Darpa program manager for the e-textiles initiative. Instead, the program will enable systems where "you can take your electronics and roll and crumple them up, then still expect them to work. That will open up a whole new domain of applications," he said.

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