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Powered, not wired

January 11th, 2014 / By: / My Take

The expectations for e-textiles and wearable technology are broad and significant. The research is yielding more promising—and practical—innovations at a fairly regular clip. We are not talking wires here. (My hunting socks with wires across the toes that run to a C-cell battery pack come to mind. Sitting in a deer stand was fine. Walking through a swamp was not.) We’re talking flexible, durable, lightweight, wearable and programmable e-textiles.

The problem is commercializing the more advanced technologies in a way that makes end products truly viable in their marketplaces. This means going beyond the sparkly things presented as prototypes that never fail to attract our eye, initially, but immediately register dollar signs in our brains. We may be thinking, “How are they going to make this work?” And hoping at the same time that they will. We may not even be sure what the point would be, but we’re sure there is one.

High fashion, for example, has been not just an early adopter but a developer, as well. (See Evening gown lights up with Twitter messages). Entertainers Carrie Underwood and U2 have used the technology on stage. Of course, they have “people” to make it work, and their purpose – never mind necessary aesthetics – is quite different from a warfighter, say. Nevertheless, the fundamental technology may not be radically different.

For research facilities and private companies working in partnership with the U.S. military (or another government), there’s built-in funding and clarity of purpose. But what about all the great ideas that bubble to the surface, but don’t have that kind of backing upfront? Look at a new product called TexTales under the Out There tab. This young entrepreneur is funding her interactive textiles with a KickStarter campaign. Smaller projects can, conceivably, do this; larger-scale research, probably not, but where might the smaller project ideas go next?

You might think that researchers developing new technologies should always have their goals, timelines and markets all worked out in advance—and many do. But for others, it’s like telling a jazz musician to write down what they’re going to improvise at the gig tonight. Some of that spontaneity yields great things, after all, and there are notable life-altering inventions that happened somewhat by accident; penicillin, the pacemaker, saccharin and Velcro, for example, whose inventors were on the way to doing something else altogether. (Swiss electrical engineer George De Mestral, was fascinated by how cockleburs stuck to his dog’s coat. Guess which one that is.)

According to Dr. Eugene Wilusz, senior scientist with the U.S. Army’s Warfighter Directorate, “The key to future advancements is the development of electronic circuits that are entirely made of fabric.” (See “E-textiles for military markets” in this issue.) At IFAI’s Advanced Textiles Conference in Orlando, Fla., in October of 2013, there was much discussion of how new technologies and materials developed specifically for the military often make their way into the consumer market. If that’s the case for wearable e-textile products, the textile industry should pay close attention.