Chips on the catwalk

Toby Howard

This article first appeared in Personal Computer World magazine, December 2000.

Futures first looked at "smart clothing" nearly 3 years ago, when we reported on Canadian computer scientist Steve Mann, who had a computer sown into his underpants (we can't quite remember why). Until recently, smart clothing has remained a curiosity, or had only military applications, but now it's coming to a clothes shop near you.

Earlier this year the Los Angeles-based Charmed Technology Inc. staged the Brave New Unwired World Fashion Technology Show at the Internet World show in London. Charmed is trying to integrate wearable technology with high-street fashion -- "geek chic", it's been called. Some cynics have suggested that there's no such thing as e-clothing -- it's merely ordinary clothing with lots of pockets strategically situated to hold bits of computers and peripherals. But it's actually getting a bit more sophisticated than that.

UK company Electrotextiles Limited is developing what it calls "smart fabric" (www.electrotextiles.com). They're weaving conductive fibres together with traditional fibres to create fabics which are completely flexible, as well as touch and pressure sensitive. The conductive fibres are weaved horizontally and vertically to make a matrix which can sense exactly where it's being touched. You could have a TV remote control woven into your sleeve, for example, or a computer keyboard sown into your T-shirt.

Soon to be with us is the ICD+ range of jackets jointly developed by Philips and Levi's. The jackets will contain an MP3 player, GSM mobile phone, remote control, with a microphone in the collar and headphones built into the hood. Only 600.

Inevitably, someone has seen the potential of e-clothes for advertising. In San Francisco, Stephen Fitch has sown a laptop into a jacket, but mounted the LCD screen on the back of the jacket. He walked around a recent advertising conference showing Microsoft adverts on his back. With advances in flexible thin screens made from organic light-emitting diodes promised by companies like Universal Display Corporation (www.universaldisplay.com), it'll be possible to make complete articles of clothing into display screens. We'll see the sandwich-board man back on the street, but this time his whole body will be displaying "The End is Nigh", probably as a Web page. You'll be able to walk up to him and click for further details.

Back in the fashion world, Charmed is promising Internet-ready accessories, although much of what the models were sporting on the catwalk were actually plastic mock-ups of the real thing. With Charmed Jewellery, you'll dictate emails into your necklace, hear spoken emails through tiny speakers in earrings, and get your voice-mail through your bracelet. Then there's the Charmed Badge, for the conference-goer who loves networking but hates people. Instead of swapping business cards or, heaven forbid, actually talking to someone, you simply aim your Charmed Badges at each other, and all contact details are automatically exchanged.

As for powering your e-clothes, all you'll need to do is walk. The Electric Shoe Company, co-founded by clockwork radio inventor Trevor Baylis, has developed a prototype shoe which uses piezoelectric crystals to generate current when stressed under the weight of your footstep. The power generated is only a few milliwatts, but it's enough to trickle-charge a battery. The military are keenly interested, since powering troops in the field is a big problem, and the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency has already contracted Baylis to develop the technology for soldiers.

E-clothing might turn out to be the WAP of the fashion world, or it might really catch on. So the next time someone calls you a smarty-pants, they might actually be technically correct.

Toby Howard teaches at the University of Manchester.