Fabrics that conduct electricity have been a fertile area of exploration for researchers. They’ve come up with textiles that can keep you warm with just the turn of a dial, or that power your phone��with your normal movements.
A team from the University of Washington has now developed fabric that can store data without any electronics or batteries. “You can think of the fabric as a hard disk—you’re actually doing this data storage on the clothes you’re wearing,” Shyam Gollakota, one of the researchers on the team, told UW News.
They do it by magnetizing off-the-shelf conductive thread—already in use in products such as stuffed animals or accessories that light up—to create a textile with its own magnetic signature. The fabric can retain digital data in binary 1s and 0s, or visual information such as letters and numbers. A wristband, belt, or even just a patch on a sleeve made from this fabric could therefore replace pass codes or keycards to open doors with electronic locks. Just like normal fabric, it can be washed, dried, and ironed.
The material can also interact with any common magnetometer, such as those already built into many smartphones. The team found that a smartphone could read six gestures from a glove with magnetized material on the fingertips 90.1% accuracy. That doesn’t sound too impressive when you can already use your finger to operate your phone with gestures. But a patch of the magnetic material, on a glove or sleeve cuff, doesn’t need to touch the phone directly, letting you transmit gestures through a pocket. You could, say, turn music on or off without having to take your phone out.
It’s an easy, and cheap, potential application. “We are using something that already exists on a smartphone and uses almost no power, so the cost of reading this type of data is negligible,” Gollakota said.
But it also points to a challenge facing these different conductive textiles. While they show a great deal of potential, the tough part may be coming up with great applications for them. Google and Levi’s teamed up to create a jacket with conductive yarn sewn in, for example, but while some were impressed by the result, others were not. “We wanted flying cars, instead we got jean jackets that can change the song on Spotify,” Quartz technology reporter Mike Murphy wrote in a review.
Still, researchers seem determined to figure out how to make our clothes do more than just keep us warm, dry, and not naked.