November 11, 2002
Smart Sensor Textiles Under Development

Do you all remember the Star Trek episode "Is There No Truth In Beauty" in the original series with Diana Muldaur as the blind Miranda Jones who wore a cape over her that served as a sensor net that allowed her to see? Real life is starting to catch up with science fiction:

The aim of STRETCH (not an acronym) is to develop large e-textile fabrics that will look like typical military equipment, such as tents or camouflage nets. The electronic wires and sensors woven into the fabric will perform the complex procedure of listening for the faint sounds of distant vehicles being deployed by the enemy.

Within the fabric, the sensors and their connecting wires will communicate with one another to create patterns of information. This information can then be translated by computer software into images that will enable soldiers to determine the location of detected sounds.

"We're designing and constructing a 30-foot-long prototype for the STRETCH fabric," Jones said. "The goal of the project is to develop a low-cost, flexibly deployable e-textile system that has low power requirements and doesn't rely on radio waves." The Virginia Tech and ISI researchers plan to test the prototype in November.

The military already has sound detection systems that rely on radio waves, but communication via radio waves can alert an adversary to a military unit's location. The e-textiles system being developed as part of STRETCH produces no detectable energy and also requires less power than radio-wave-operated systems.

"Cloth has properties that can be useful for certain electronic applications," said Robert Parker, director of ISI and co-principal investigator on the STRETCH project. "We can easily and cheaply make large pieces of cloth, light and strong, that can be stretched over frames into any desired shape."

Sound detection is not the only potential use for the STRETCH e-textile system. Fabrics can be woven with sensors that can detect chemicals, pick up satellite signals, and perform other feats. Jones and his colleagues also foresee numerous industrial uses.

Jones and Martin also have received a $400,000 National Science Foundation Information Technology Research (ITR) grant to design wearable computers made of e-textiles.

The generic concept of wearable computers is a small CPU in a fanny-pack connected to a cumbersome head gear that holds a display screen at eye-level. The Virginia Tech ITR project is something completely different.

Because the wires and sensors in e-textiles are woven into the fabric, wearable computers could be constructed much like normal-looking shirts or hats or other types of cloth apparel. These computers wouldn't connect users to the internet or send and receive e-mail, but would perform specific functions necessary to the wearers.

"Wearable computers constructed of e-textiles offer context awareness," Martin said. "They can be designed to be aware of the user's motions and of his surroundings."

For example, sensors called accelerometers -- which are used to cue airbags to deploy -- can detect changes in speed and direction. There are visual sensors that can project images to tiny displays clipped to eye glasses. An e-textile shirt for a blind user might include tiny vibrating motors that would provide cues about approaching objects.

Of course this opens up some interesting possibilities. These textiles will eventually become very advanced. You could leave your jacket in your chair in a business meeting, step out temporarily, and be able to come back and ask your jacket later what people said while you were gone. Or of you were trying to leave the house and couldn't figure out where you left your jacket you could yell out and ask it where it was. If it was smart enough it could recognize your voice (you'd have to give it a name too in order to call to it) and respond. Plus, you could have an artificially intelligent talking couch. It could warn someone if they were falling asleep with a lit cigarette in their hand: "Wake up you idiot, you're about to burn me!".

There would also be the erotic talking towel that would go ooh and aah as a person toweled off after a shower. Then there'd be the hat that could tell you that someone was coming up on you from behind. Or how about the computer chair that a man's wife might get him that would tell him he's spending too much time in front of the computer and to get out and work on the yard?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2002 November 11 04:33 PM  Nanotech Advances

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