Dr. Geek: Smart Clothes and Cybernetic Fashions

Dr Geek Header

One of my favorite movies of all time is Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future.  When I was young, the movie blew me away, and I had a total crush on Michael J. Fox.  I even tried to conceptualize how to make the flight conversion on cars work, and sent a letter to the President of the United States with my idea.  And while the sequels never do capture the brilliance of first movie, they do have their share of great moments, such as the amazing editing sequence of combining new footage with old in Part II and the train sequence in Part III.  

When I teach future communication technologies at my university, I always begin this section of robotics, cybernetics and holographics by showing them the scene when Marty McFly first arrives in 2015 Hilldale (2.5 years for the hoverboard!).  The sequence showcases all of these technologies, in one way or another, and gets us ready to think about how we can integrate these technologies into our everyday lives.

One of the technologies on display is the smart coat Doc Brown gives Marty so that he fits in with the fashion and tech conscious teenagers of the future.  When first given it, Marty laments that it is too big; to which Doc Brown activates the coat and it automatically tailors itself to Marty’s small frame.  Later, after Marty deals with Future Tannen (lesson learned from BTTF: There is always a Tannen) and ends up soaked as his reward, his coat is there to make another adjustment.

Now, when looking at this sequence, and the future products it predicts, everyone focuses on the hoverboard because, well, who wouldn’t want that?  But I hate to tell you, unless we interlace all street and sidewalk surfaces with some type of superconducting magnetic alloy, hoverboards are not very likely.  Same thing with the flight converted cars — if you think people are bad drivers in two dimensions, do you really want to add a third?  Also, while holographically projected media is coming, don’t be expecting it for the inevitable release of the original Jaws in 3D.  In fact, out of all of the technological possibilities on display in future Hilldale, the one most likely to be with us in 2015 is the smart clothing fashion as depicted with Marty’s coat and shoes.

We are now seeing many different fields of fashion and technology coming together to build an assortment of wearable electronics that mesh and mold with our bodies, removing the need for us to actually use our hands to access our digital memories and virtual lives.  We even have the development of fashionable technology that allows us to communicate in ways physically we were not built for: I am looking at you, brainwave-powered neko ears.  I wrote about such a marriage of technologies with the experiments into creating cybernetic contact lenses.  The fact that so many people are trying to weave electronics into our accoutrements is nothing new or surprising.

The reason I am writing about this topic right now is because of two recent technology news items that, taken together, bring us that one step closer to Marty’s self-adjusting, self-drying coat.

Skylar Tibbets — which may be one of the five best names of all time — is the Director of the Self-Assembly Lab at MIT.  The research lab is dedicated to developing technologies that, through minimal external stimulus (ex. immersion in a liquid, sound, head, pressure, vibration, etc), will arrange themselves into a predetermined final position; the goal is to essentially “program” objects to skip several production and assembly steps, thereby speeding up the entire manufacturing process.  You may have heard of this idea in the field of robotics, where robots are programmed to replicate or repair themselves (in preparation to becoming our overlords), or in the field of nanotechnology, which places such manufacturing on the microscopic scale.  Tibbets and his colleagues are also interested in non-robotic, larger, scale-able production that could produce mass quantities of self-assembling widget and gadgets.

Tibbets recently gave a TED talk in which he discussed the creation of such self-assembling products through 3D printing, developing what he has termed “4D printing“.   Now 3D printing itself has implications for fashion, as fashion designers are beginning to experiment with how to print clothes — albeit plastic clothes — through such devices.   The use of 3D printing for clothing does not make what Tibbet is discussing unique.  Instead, it is the idea of the type of clothing that could be printed using his 4D printing approach.

Dita Von Teese, you really are a tease

Dita Von Teese, you really are a tease

Tibbets is thinking about the possibility of developing clothing that is, essentially, robotically-enhanced.  He mentions the idea of sports equipment that could respond with great precision to the environmental conditions in which it is being used — imagine a football helmet that gets harder just before contact with another helmet, or a runner’s clothes changing absorption rates dependent upon increases or decreases in sweat.  His conceptualization for 4D printing involves having material that is programmed to be adaptive to their environments and responsive to their uses, and able to be printed from anywhere.

Here we have the basic idea for creating clothing that, perhaps with the right application of a minimal electric charge, would  re-assemble itself to adjust better to our physical form: i.e. Marty’s coat that can adjust to your particular size.  The real trick for any of these adaptable and responsive materials would be for it to be able to go backwards and forwards between two, or more, different designations.  This would be particularly needed to allow for flexibility of use — a football player would not want his or her helmet to always be the hardest, and thus heaviest, and neither would the runner want his or her shirt stuck on a particular setting.  Likewise, if I had an adaptable skirt, it would be nice for it to be able to be longer for work and shorter for play.  But given the interest, and innovation, with which people are using 3D printers, I have no doubt solving the flexibility of use question will be on their priority list.

A bigger issue would be how to power all of these smart, adaptable, responsive clothes.  We already have a green issue with the extent to which our smart phones are gulping down electricity.  Add to this power consumption, and dollar drain, clothes that need some type of electric charge in order to perform the way they are designed, and, well, you can see the dilemma we are facing.  Unless the Mr. Fusion of BTTF also becomes a reality, we are going to need to find new ways to power our cybernetic fashions.

Enter David Carroll, a researcher in nanotechnology at Wake Forest University, who may be on the verge of making a breakthrough in self-generating material.  Carroll is developing a lighter-weight (as long as you think wool is light-weight) and flexible fabric that could produce electricity through radiant heat or vibrations from movement.  You could be going about your daily business, walking the dog on a sunny day, and thereby “pulling” energy from the environment and your kinetic activity that could be stored within the clothing for immediate or later use.  This thermoeletric fabric could one day become the material for our clothes and generate electricity to not only power electronic devices, such as the new smart watches and the upcoming Google Glasses, but also the clothes themselves.  You would become your own electric outlet.

Courtesy of Wake Forest University -- Powering up the thermoelectric clothe.

Courtesy of Wake Forest University — Powering up the thermoelectric clothe.

Carroll’s thermoelectric fabric relies on a very special interweaving of components for generated and storing the electricity into the material.  And, right now, that fabric is more akin to wool given the size requirements for the components.  But as the research progresses, it should be possible to miniaturize the components, allowing them to be more easily woven into the fibers of cotton or silk.  At that point, the flexibility of the fabric means it could be made useful for a number of different types of smart clothes.

And should that thermoelectric fabric also be made with Tibbet’s 4D printing process, you are looking at the possibility for smart clothes that are adaptable and responsive to the very environment they are drawing energy from in order to power their adaptability and responsiveness.

Self-assembling and self-generating smart clothes.

10-to-1 we see that by 2015 before we see any hoverboard.

Although, that doesn’t mean you, engineer and geek, should give up on making that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.