Pocobor.

Wearable Electronics

Not exactly what I mean.

One of the things I have been excited about lately is the burgeoning area of wearable electronics and e-textiles. Despite the sad fact that the Tron guy might get more mainstream coverage than anyone else in the field, there are actually a bunch of really exciting (and useful) projects in progress around the world. Additionally, although there is certainly some advanced work going on at institutional levels, wearable electronics as a field lends itself well to do-it-yourself (DIY) hacker culture and many of the projects that have grabbed me recently have not come out of corporate or educational behemoths. It is exciting to see cutting edge advancement in a field happen so democratically and I think it bodes well for electronics and smart products more generally that so many people are able to do such great work.

Things have been pretty busy here the last few months; when I started this post I meant to time it for release around the New York Maker Faire eTextile Fashion Show, but I missed that by about 6 weeks. The site is still worth checking out though – it links to some of the people and projects who were there. Anyway, I still want to highlight some of the areas in wearable electronics that have some cool work going on. If you are intrigued by any of these projects, dig a little more – this is the lightest possible scratch on the surface of the space. The Talk2MyShirt blog is a great place to start.

Fashion

Integrating electronics into clothing in the service of aesthetics (“In matters of cloth he is as fickle as can be / Cause he’s a dedicated follower of fashion”) can be one of the simplest but most accessible forms of wearable electronics. From the sound-responsive equalizer t-shirt you saw someone wearing at the dance club to so-called haute tech fashion (get it?) like Angel Chang’s dress with heat-sensitive ink used to hide a map of Manhattan in the fabric of the dress itself, designers are pushing boundaries at the intersection of clothing, art, fashion and technology.

Function

Wearable electronics is also progressing along more practical lines. Bio-monitoring clothing such as a smart baby monitor onesie that allows parents to monitor their baby’s biometric data and even emotional state from a cellphone or computer is approaching market and offers a wealth of possible uses. Or, consider products like the Frontline Gloves, designed as a gesture-based communication tool for firefighters to use in smoky, low-visibility situations. On a simpler level, there are a wide range of garments available that integrate cell phones, mp3 players or headphones with varying levels of seamlessness.

Where To Next?

In addition to continued progress in the directions designers are already moving, there is one advance on the horizon that I expect to fundamentally change the landscape of wearable electronics (as well as consumer electronics and smart products in general). That area is power harvesting. Right now, nearly all personal electronics, both wearable and otherwise, require frequent recharging of their batteries. However, imagine a world where batteries are recharged automatically as you go about your day. This could happen through harvesting mechanical energy associated with walking around, thermal energy associated with your body, solar energy, or even stray electromagnetic energy from the electronic communication-saturated world in which we live. As the above types of technologies become sophisticated enough to provide meaningful amounts of power, the spectrum of possibility will vastly expand. I can’t wait to see what people come up with to take advantage of it.