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Weaving The Future
Jamais Cascio, 9 Nov 04

When we read about "wearable" computers, we generally see accompanying pictures of awkward-looking college students wreathed in cables and black plastic or adorned with oversized sunglasses with all sorts of bumpy protruberances. But such images are an artifact of the requirement that computers be encased in hard shells. Such a limitation may now be falling away. Recent advances in flexible electronics have made it possible to weave computational intelligence, including both input and output, directly into fabric. We may soon be in a world where wearable computers don't just show up on the cover of Wired, but also on the cover of Vogue.

Eleven years ago, WorldChanging Ally #1 Bruce Sterling wrote a brief essay for cyber-counterculture magazine Mondo 2000 entitled Computer As Furoshiki, which described a computing device in the form of a meter-square piece of cloth. Solar-powered, the fabric could serve as a display, was touch-sensitive, and could even fold itself with embedded artificial muscles fibers. Computer As Furoshiki laid out a vision of pervasive computing that feels very different from the mobile-phone-and-eyewear-centric conventional notion of the future. Cloth is more intimate than hard plastic; clothing is as much an extension of our skin as it is a tool. A world where computing devices are regularly embedded in fabric is one where the computer adopts that same intimacy. It's a kind of cyborgism, without the messy implants.

Computer-enabled fabric would serve as a remarkable interface between our selves and our environment. Embedded with sensors, clothing could easily alert us to airborne contaminants such as pollen, particulate pollution, carbon monoxide, or worse. Similarly, it could keep track of our health, responding to bodily changes reflecting illness. Hospital linens could serve as secondary patient monitors, alerting nursing staff of changes in condition. Smart fabric gets even stranger if a limited mobility is added, from clothing able to loosen or tighten the weave of the fabric in response to temperature to upholstery able to contain a spill to sheets which reduce hospital patient bedsores. Include the ability to function as a display, and you have everything from a sleeve serving as a cameraphone display to clothing which can act as a visual beacon in an emergency.

Although the computer as furoshiki isn't possible just yet, many of its pieces are starting to come together, albeit in primitive form. We are seeing increasing numbers and varieties of computers embedded into upholstery, blankets and especially clothing. The last couple of months has seen a rapid proliferation of electronics-embedded fabrics.

Input: today reports on a new technology which makes it possible to manufacture digital sensors and switches out of textiles. The textiles are sensitive to pressure and moisture, and can be rolled up, washed, even sewn.

Sensors: The BBC has an example of biomedical sensors in clothing. Similarly, researchers at Georgia Tech designed a "smart shirt" able to monitor biomedical data for the military.

Display: Josh Rubin: Cool Hunting had a quick note last week about jackets from Nyx sportswear which contain embedded wearable displays. "The display is quite flexible and is not raised from the surface of the fabric. To show scrolling text or a graphical animation, just plug in your Palm Pilot..." A demo movie can be found here (Rubin apologizes for the music, as do I).

Mobility: Our own Régine Debatty's Near Near Future reported last month about Nicholas Steadman's Blanket robot, which is able to crawl up and over a prone body. Intended as an art project, it is nonetheless a sign of future developments.

Power: solar panels woven into fabric are becoming almost commonplace, with both jackets and backpacks being available. Both claim to be able to charge low-power computers like Game Boys and iPods (and, of course, mobile phones).

Processing and Memory: This is the hard part, at least for now. A current-technology jacket computer would still require a separate non-flexible computing device to function. Although in principle this isn't necessarily a bad thing -- a phone-sized computer which connects to your jacket when you're wearing it, to your sofa when you're home, even to your blanket at night could be useful. But a self-contained cloth computer will need to have cloth -- or, at least, flexible -- processing. Fortunately, that may well be on the way. Silicon Valley company Rolltronics, which specializes in flexible plastic switches and displays, is reportedly working on printable plastic processors and memory. According to the 2001 Economist article, the plastic transistors should be able to perform as well as a 286 processor (remember those?) -- that is, not very fast, but not far off from the processor in a typical mobile phone.

A fabric computing concept which parallels some of these ideas is the smart fabric patch developed at MIT.

Each patch contains a functional unit of the system - a microprocessor and memory plus either a radio transceiver, a sensor, a microphone, batteries or a display. Put the patches together in different ways and you can create a variety of information-providing or environment-sensing objects, say developers Adrian Cable, Gauri Nanda and Michael Bove at MIT’s Media Lab. [...] With the patches... a user can easily swap modules to use the system for a variety of functions.

The example given is a fabric bag comprising several of the patches. Connected by velcro, the patches can assemble something moderately functional. That said, I'm not sure they'd make a good coat.

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I would love to see a computer as 'Krama'. These pieces of cloth are used every day in Cambodia for almost every household purpose, and are far more ubiquitous than Furoshiki; in fact they are emblematic of working Cambodia.

If you're carrying an infant with a krama, it could monitor the child's body temperature. If you're in the sun, it could change characteristics to protect you from ultraviolet.

In the developed world people put on sunblock and change clothes, but in the developing world I think smart fabric would be used until all its threads are bare. The real challenge would be bringing the cost down.

Posted by: John Weeks on 9 Nov 04

::::According to the 2001 Economist article, the plastic transistors should be able to perform as well as a 286 processor (remember those?)::::

ever thought of trying some grid computing on a networked blanket... how many "286 computers" could a king sized bed sheet hold?

Posted by: Vlad on 10 Nov 04

This sounds fantastic, and the natural step in the evolution of computers. But I'm waiting on the day when we no longer need cloth, but can cover ourselves in an energy field that we can shape to look like any clothing we wanted. Of course, you might die early of some type of radiation poisoning...

Posted by: Ceres Wright on 17 Nov 04



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