Wearables breakthrough: Scientists develop missing link for affordable power-generating clothes

Off-the-shelf clothing that can power small electronics on the move is closer than ever before thanks to a breakthrough by materials scientists.

Devised by scientists at the University of Massachusetts, the development takes the form of a new method of applying metal-free electrodes to both fabric and fully formed clothing, which are both breathable and bend and move with the garment.

This has been achieved through the use of a conducting polymer coating, which is applied to regular fabric as a vapour to produce a nanometers-thick layer that does not change the way the fabric feels, or how it needs to be cared for.  Paired with a different material, the technology uses movement-created friction to generate power.

The result is clothes that are both comfortable to wear and which can power small electronics that are either attached to or integrated with the garment. It represents a major advance on the plastic mounts or heavy cladded fibres that have previously been used to add electronics to fabrics, putting an end to uncomfortable plastic lumps or heavy additions that warp the shape of clothing.

The conductive polymer is applied as a vapour, meaning it has a maximum thickness of just 500 nanometers.

It is thought that the technology could be used for health monitoring, which is increasingly being used by both the military and the healthcare industry.

“We aim to build up the materials science so you can give us any garment you want, any fabric, any weave type, and turn it into a conductor,” explained Trisha Andrew, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“Such conducting textiles can then be built up into sophisticated electronics. One such application is to harvest body motion energy and convert it into electricity in such a way that every time you move, it generates power.

“By sandwiching layers of differently materials between two conducting electrodes, a few microwatts of power can be generated when we move.”

The technology could be used in healthcare to create garments that continuously monitor patient health without creating discomfort.

The technology, which is detailed in a paper published the journal Advanced Functional Materials, is also designed to be very robust, enabling it to be stretched, pulled and washed like normal garments.

“You’d be amazed how much stress your clothes go through until you try to make a coating that will survive a shirt being pulled over the head. The stress can be huge, up to a thousand newtons of force. For comparison, one footstep is equal to about 10 newtons, so it’s yanking hard,” said Andrew.

“If your coating is not stable, a single pull like that will flake it all off. That’s why we had to show that we could bend it, rub it and torture it. That is a very powerful requirement to move forward.”

Designed to work with conventional fabrics, the technology will likely be embraced by the textiles and fashion industry, particularly among sportswear brands that have already heavily explored adding technology to their clothing.

“There is strong motivation to use something that is already familiar, such as cotton/silk thread, fabrics and clothes, and imperceptibly adapting it to a new technological application,” said Andrew.

“This is a huge leap for consumer products, if you don’t have to convince people to wear something different than what they are already wearing.”

Fashion and tech have been uneasy bedfellows at times, but there are a number of designers who are combining the two to great effect. We look at whether it will be the creative output from the fashion industry that puts wearable tech back in vogue

Of the few industries still interested in infusing the things we wear everyday with tech, it’d take a brave man to bet against the fashion industry – rather than VR headset makers, or fitness fanatics – being the ones to make wearable tech wearable.

But making wearables desirable, rather than just functional, isn’t a simple task; it means taking traditionally hard and cold wearable technology, smashing it together with the delicate world of fashion, and hoping that what you come out with is clothing that is fashionable, alluring, empowering and techy.

There are some companies finding ways to do just that, but, as a way of demonstrating the problems associated with combining the worlds of fashion and tech, I just wanted to share some of the more illogical, Derek Zoolander-inspired comments made by representatives for the fashion industry at the Wearable Technology Show 2017 (names have been omitted to save the speakers’ blushes).

Image courtesy of The Unseen

“Fashion is just like skin and wearable technology is just like a vitamin.” It’s not really though is it.

“We all wear clothes of some sort, all the time, whoever we are, whatever we’re doing.” No shit.

“I’m staggered by how many wipes there are in industry today and everywhere you see ‘please do not throw it down the loo’. Why are we using them? What was the matter with old-fashioned tissues, or cloth or anything else. I mean it is really indescribable how big the non-woven wipes market is, and I think it’s very dangerous. I think it’s very, very dangerous.” Yes, this person did take to the stage at a conference about wearable technology to rant about how wet wipes are “dangerous”, “very, very dangerous”.

Innovative or kitsch?

Back in the nineties, Francesca Rosella worked as a designer for the Italian fashion brand Valentino. Now, together with trained artist and anthropologist Ryan Genz, Rosella is creative director of CuteCircuit, a startup fashion label, launched in 2004, that is using smart textiles and micro-electronics to build beautiful, functional garments. The company’s pièce de résistance is undoubtedly its graphene dress, which records and analyses the wearer’s breathing patterns and reacts to whether heavy or light breaths are taken. Deep breaths turn the lights on the dress from purple to turquoise, while lighter ones make the dress switch from orange to green.

While CuteCircuit has been praised for its creativity, some of its other work shows how fine the line is between an innovation and a gimmick in wearable tech. The company was responsible for a haute couture Twitter Dress that could receive tweets in real-time. It’s not too great a leap from a dress that receives tweets to a dress that changes colour depending on your breathing, but to some the Twitter dress is on the wrong side of the gaudy/innovative border.

“Technology for technology’s sake is very gimmicky and very kitsch, and this is no disrespect to Cute Circuit because they’re a fantastic brand. The graphene dress: beautiful, stunning exciting, interesting, intriguing. A dress that you can send tweets to is probably the most gimmicky thing I’ve ever heard of,” said Sanj Surati, head of digital and innovation at communications agency Village.

“There are problems with the fashion technology world because the assumption is technology has to be functional and it has to give you something, and that application of thought when you’re trying to be creative is very stifling. Where the line is, I don’t know because when it comes to fashion it’s all subjective: there’s things you like and there’s things you don’t like.”

On the high street

Although the “we all wear clothes of some sort, all the time, whoever we are, whatever we’re doing,” quote sounds ridiculous to me, there is a serious point being made by that commentator. There’s a great amount of data to be collected from fashion, and that presents a great opportunity to fashion brands. So far, though, it’s high-end and luxury brands who are willing to get involved, while high-street brands appear reluctant to experiment with tech.

“Some of them [the high-street brands], as grandiose as they are, are very risk adverse, very traditional; they don’t want to take chances,” said Surati. “Usually the conversations they have with tech businesses are: look you work with us, we work with you, we won’t pay you for anything, but you’ll get loads of PR from the fact that you worked with Topshop or H&M etc.

I think a lot of those brands have got loads of money, but no ambition. They’re not seeing the value of what these tech startups are coming up with, and what they bring to the table

“I think a lot of those brands have got loads of money, but no ambition. They’re not seeing the value of what these tech startups are coming up with, and what they bring to the table.”

What we’ve seen so far are one-off haute couture dresses that are combined with wearable tech, rather than less expensive alternatives that are available to all. Luckily, fashion does work on the trickle down approach, so items that begin as high-end usually find their way to the high street. To date though, we haven’t definitively decided what the high-end of this market should look like, but as Elena Corchero, director of design research at Lost Values, says, falling costs will allow for more elaborate designs that still allow the conservative fashion industry to maintain the sanctity of, and artistry within, the atelier.

“Technologies in general are looking quite minimalist and quite safe aesthetically just because they try to reach everyone because developing these technologies is expensive,” said Corchero. “The more affordable they become I hope we can then start testing the different markets, some people love the whole blinking, blinking thing.

“I think understanding the market you’re trying to reach instead of trying to please everyone is the next stage.”

Combining art and science

Whether techy textiles make their way to the high street or not, wearable technology will allow the fashion industry to explore new creative endeavours. What it also allows is a romance between the worlds of art and science and that should also be celebrated even if the resultant products aren’t as wearable as they should be at the moment.

“There’s this fantastic material scientist, her name’s Lauren Bowker, she runs a brand called The Unseen,” said Surati. “She wanted to create a dress that basically changed colour depending on what you were thinking. It was a very beautiful piece of clothing, but no one could wear it because the ceramic fibres would heat up and it would burn you, but we basically built this dress, and developed it in partnership with her.

“It was absolutely beautiful,” said Surati. “We PR’d the hell out of it, and everyone started flying in from all over the world to see this dress. That dress wasn’t very practical, but it didn’t matter, this was her trying to express herself. You had to put on a EG headset for it to change colour, and we didn’t know what the colours meant – we didn’t know what emotion attributed to what colour – but it was so cool that the head atelier of Victoria Secret – one of the most profitable fashion businesses in the world – flew in to see this dress because they were interested in this new art form, which is what we’re building today.

“What everyone here is building today is new forms of being creative, and that’s exciting.”