Can the IoT Change the Very Fiber of Society?

A major research and development project aims to change the meaning of "a smart-looking outfit."
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Apr 05, 2016

Integrating electronics into textiles is far from a new concept. For well over a decade, researchers and commercial entities have been making slow and steady progress toward developing fabrics that can sense temperature, collect health data, or even lend a wearer bionic characteristics. But last week, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) announced the Advanced Functional Fibers of America (AFFOA) Institute, a major effort to coordinate and amplify these efforts across the public and private sectors.

It's no pet project, either. The AFFOA Institute is being backed by $317 million, of which $75 million is direct federal funding. The DOD, industrial partners, venture capitalists, universities, nonprofits and the state of Massachusetts are sharing the remainder of the costs. Massachusetts is involved because the project is the brainchild of Professor Yoel Fink, the director of MIT's Research Laboratory of Electronics, and will be headquartered in Cambridge, near the MIT campus and its U.S. Army-funded Institute for Soldier Nanotechnology, as well as the Natick Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center.

The vision behind the project is to integrate a long list of functions into fabrics. These include the ability to "see, hear, and sense their surroundings; communicate; store and convert energy; monitor health; control temperature; and change their color," according to a press release from MIT.

Those types of features represent a major leap from what smart fabrics are capable of today. That is not to downplay what has already been achieved. Last year, for example, we reported on how DuPont had developed a smart shirt that sported a three-lead electrocardiogram (ECG), as well as temperature and motion sensors. But that was achieved by printing stretchable conductive and dielectric inks onto the fabric, and then relying on an external microcontroller to collect and transmit that data. The types of textiles that the AFFOA Institute is aiming to manufacture, on the other hand, would be constructed of fibers that actually contain integrated circuits.

"We are literally reengineering what a fiber looks like," explained Fink in a video posted on the AFFOA website. And he goes on to describe a number of fascinating applications of textiles made with such fibers, including the integration of a digital lens. Fabric with an integrated digital lens could be used, for instance, to make a shirt that doubles as a camera. Fink and his colleagues are also forming piezoelectric fibers that could record sound or even function as speakers.

The initiative is gargantuan. Out of the gate, 32 universities, 16 industry members, 72 manufacturing entities and 26 startup incubators, spread across 27 states and Puerto Rico, have joined the effort. These organizations include apparel companies Nike and VF Corp., which owns The North Face and other household brands.

Of course, well before we see futuristic, sensing, computing apparel lining the aisles of stores, these technologies are likely to be debuted by the U.S. military, for uses designed to protect soldiers or amplify surveillance—or both—and more.

And as with so many technologies that are first tested on battlefields, smart clothing will then transition to commercial uses. It's easy to imagine first-responders or remote workers, deep inside mines or high on a wind turbine tower, using smart clothing to collect data on their own health or environmental variables.

I just hope that before these technologies trickle down to mass-market consumer applications, their architects will have thought about the entire product lifecycle. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans already send an average of around 70 pounds of clothing to landfills each year. Granted, these will be expensive togs that consumers will not quickly cast aside. But if manufacturers do not design for reuse or recycling, smart clothes will eventually end up in a landfill or incinerator, creating new types of electronic waste. And that's not smart.

Mary Catherine O'Connor is the editor of IoT Journal and a former staff reporter for RFID Journal. She also writes about technology, as it relates to business and the environment, for a range of consumer magazines and newspapers.

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