New “electronic textiles” could help monitor the activities of patients with chronic illnesses. Computer engineers have developed pants with sensors embedded in the fabric that measure speed, rotation and flexing, and send wireless signals to a computer. Researchers plan to integrate computers into shirts, hats and gloves.

BLACKSBURG, Va.–You get a cell phone call and your sleeve answers it. You want to know how far you jogged and your pants tell you. Smart clothes are the latest trend to come down the runway.

Can’t decide what to wear? Wish your clothes were smart enough to decide for you? Now, electronics and computer science technology may help your clothing think.

Mark Jones, a computer scientist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, says, “We view electronic textiles as, sort of, where computing meets the fabric.”

This high-tech marriage is breeding the latest in wearable computers, like pants that detect movement and let a computer know your every move.

A loom helps sew the wires and fabric together. Then sensors embedded in the fabric measure the speed, rotation and flexibility of the pants with every movement. Wireless signals are sent from the pants to a computer to display the activity.

Tom Martin, also a computer engineer at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, says, “E-textiles are a way for us to build wearable computers that look like normal clothing to build pervasive computing devices that fit in seamlessly with the environment.”

Researchers also hope wearable computers will help save lives. “We can tell what activity that person is doing. That sort of information is extremely valuable when we’re trying to monitor someone with a chronic illness such a heart condition,” Jones says. And monitoring your every step is something clever clothing can watch a little easier.

Researchers plan on developing more smart clothes to integrate computers into shirts, hats and gloves.

BACKGROUND: Scientists at Virginia Tech’s E-textiles Laboratory are developing clothes that appear and feel normal, but provide sensing and computing capabilities. Wires and sensors are woven into the fabric, which can then be used to make shirts, pants, hats, gloves or other clothing items. It turns clothing into “wearable computers,” capable of monitoring things like how fast and how far a jogger runs, or the blood pressure and heart rate of a cardiac patient.

ADVANTAGES: Smart clothing/wearable computers are already on the market, but the current e-textiles in use have problems. Some sensors only work well if they are placed a certain distance apart on a garment. If the user rolls up the shirt sleeves or pants legs, or other changes occur while the e-textile garment is being worn, the network of sensors needs to be able to “sense” the reconfiguration and adjust accordingly in order to perform effectively. The e-textiles being developed at Virginia Tech will be able to sense their own shapes, the wearer’s motions, and the positions of the sensing elements.

WHAT’S NEXT: The Virginia Tech researchers are working with a major textile manufacturer in Virginia, Dan River, Inc., to determine whether e-textiles can be made using traditional manufacturing techniques. To that end, they will test a prototype e-textile fabric on Dan River’s existing looms. If this works, wiring will be woven into the fabric using the looms, and the sensors will be attached after the garments are completed.

HOW SENSORS WORK: Sensors are tiny electronic devices that can both detect and generate electrical signals from the movement and position of any given object, including the motion of the human body. These signals are then transmitted wirelessly to a microcontroller and analyzed using specially designed algorithms.

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Mahesh(MGIT – ECE 3rd year)