“Wearables” have come into their own as a consumer technology. During the first quarter of 2018, technology companies shipped nearly 25 million wearable devices. The majority of those were watches and wrist bands. While, like all technology products, these devices have slimmed down over time, for the most part these wearables are still bulky accessories that must be regularly removed for charging. Smartwatches and fitness trackers fit under the category “clothes” the same way La-Z-Boys fit under the category “bed” – they’re close, but their form factor means you can only embrace them so much.
Asimina Kiourti and the Ohio State ElectroScience Laboratory hope to avoid that pitfall. Kiourti and her lab is embroidering electronics directly into fabrics using conductive thread they call “e-threads.” “It looks like regular thread,” she told us recently, “but it’s silver coated. It’s conductive.” It’s also lightweight, and easily usable with common commercial sewing machines.
Unlike most current wearables, fabric with Kiourti’s e-thread is lightweight, like a normal piece of cloth. “The idea was to functionalize the fabric itself,” she said. There are hundreds of possible applications for e-textiles — blankets that measure the growth of premature babies at home, smart hats that interface with body implants, shirts that detect and record body motion — but Kiourti is most intrigued by e-thread’s potential as antennae, especially for the military.
“They need to have a communication device that works over very long distances that is, hopefully, secure. For now, they do this using a large, heavy antennae that they carry with them. Now there’s the potential of carrying an antennae directly in [service members’] fabric.” Lightweight, fabric-incorporated antennae would have non-military applications too. Cell phone antennae, for example, must be very small to fit into the device. If e-textile clothes or accessories could be recruited as antennae, you would be able to increase your cell phone’s antennae’s power and get reception in isolated locations. It’s the same idea as improving your TV’s reception by adding tin foil to its rabbit ears, except your clothes are the things acting like the tin foil.
E-textiles are promising outside of their heath, electronics and military applications. Kiourti hopes that e-textile projects will attract women and people of color to engineering, two groups still underrepresented in the field. “Yes, there’s an engineering aspect to e-textiles, but at the end of the day, we’ll provide a product that people will use and wear.” Kiourti first became interested in e-textiles for its practical, tactile possibility. She bets others will find true wearables an attractive way to approach engineering.
Kiourti will show off and demonstrate uses for e-thread and e-textiles on Saturday, September 15, at Cincinnati’s Mini Maker Faire at the Hamilton County Fairgrounds. You can follow her and the ElectroScience Laboratory online at electroscience.osu.edu.