The clothes can be washed, dried and ironed as with regular garments.
In recent years, wearable devices like smartwatches have become increasingly popular among those who want to keep track of their personal health and fitness.
Researchers from the National University of Singapore invented clothing that conducts Bluetooth and WiFi to connect all your different gadgets, turning the wearer into a pseudo-human circuit board.
The conductive material on the clothing is made from stainless steel in comb-shaped strips attached to the outer surface of the clothing, and can still be washed like any normal clothing.
The team is eventually looking to commercialize the meta-material, particularly in the athletics and healthcare industries where body performance and health monitoring are so important.
Wearable devices like smartwatches and sensors that monitor your heart rate have, in recent years, become increasingly popular.
For consumers concerned about their personal health and fitness, they’re invaluable — but it seems researchers in Singapore have taken wearable technology to a whole new level.
With rapid advancements in wearable technology and the increasing sophistication of the data they transmit, the need for a way to connect these devices seamlessly and efficiently has become more important — especially for those who use more than one gadget at once.
National University of Singapore researchers cited in NUS News and in Nature Electronics say “smart” clothes they’ve innovated can turn their wearer into a “pseudo-human circuit board”, effectively enhancing connectivity between one’s wearable devices.
Headed by Assistant Professor John Ho from the NUS Institute for Health Innovation & Technology, the research team revealed a “smart” textile that can conduct radio-waves like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi on the surface of clothing.
Described as a “meta-material”, the grey conductive textile is said to create a “wireless body sensor network” that allows devices to transmit data with a signal that is a thousand times stronger than that of conventional technologies.
The outer surface of the smart clothing has a comb-shaped conductive strip. Business Insider / Jonathan Loh
Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radio-waves — which almost all body sensors use to connect to smartphones and other wearable electronics — typically radiate outwards in all directions when emitted, resulting in most of the energy being lost to the surroundings.
The result: a drastic reduction in efficiency of the wearable device as much of its battery life is consumed from just attempting to establish a connection with another gadget.
Confining Bluetooth, Wi-Fi signal range improves device performance
With this problem in mind, Assistant Professor Ho and his team engineered the specially-patterned textile to confine signals between sensors closer to the body instead of letting them spread away into surrounding space, allowing for a boost in connection strength.
The material — made from stainless steel fibers — comes in the form of comb-shaped strips that are attached to the outer surface of clothing by embroidery or fabric adhesive, while the inner side has unpatterned conductor strips.
Research fellows Dr Ng Kian Ann and Dr. Lee Pui Mun told Business Insider that the outer strips act like tracks for “surface waves” to “glide” wirelessly around the body, whereas the ones underneath serve an “earthing” function which prevents the signal from being radiated in the direction towards the wearer’s body.
As such, more energy from the signal between devices is localized to the body rather than radiating in all directions, allowing electronics worn in close proximity to these strips to use much less power than usual and be able to detect much weaker signals.
“This innovation allows for the perfect transmission of data between devices at power levels that are 1,000 times reduced,” Assistant Professor Ho said.
Alternatively, the meta-material textiles can also “boost the received signal by 1,000 times which could give you dramatically high data rates for the same power” he added.
And if you’re wondering whether the radio-waves could pose any health threats to the wearer, Assistant Professor Ho said the risks are very minimal and are less significant than holding a smartphone near one’s body for a prolonged period of time.
Having “smart” clothes also means that there is no need to make modifications to any of the user’s electronics, as the meta-material is able to function with any existing wireless device that is in the same designed frequency band.
The conductive strips can be arranged in any pattern on clothing to suit the needs of the wearer. Business Insider / Jonathan Loh
And apparently, the boosted signal between devices is so strong that it is possible to wirelessly transmit power (in the form of radio-waves) from a smartphone to another wearable device, potentially paving the way for battery-free gadgets, NUS said.
This is demonstrated in the video below using an LED light.
The signal can be transmitted through non-interfering materials to power devices as well.
In addition, confining the movement and radiation of these signal waves close to the body provides the wearer more privacy as compared to conventional methods of transmitting data through Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.
Assistant Professor Ho noted that such waves transmit signals that can reach several meters — more than 100 meters for Wi-Fi — away from the person wearing the device.
The conductive “smart” textile creates a “wireless body sensor network” that allows devices to transmit data with a signal that is a thousand times stronger than that of conventional technologies. Business Insider : Jonathan Loh
The wireless body sensor network allows devices to transmit data with a signal 1,000 times stronger than that of standard tech. Business Insider / Jonathan Loh
This consequently leaves personal and sensitive information open to being picked up by potential eavesdroppers from a distance.
The meta-material strips confine the outward range of the signals to just 10 centimeters away from the body, allowing the “wireless network” to be more secure.
There are potential applications for the technology in healthcare as well as in athletics
The strips are available in rolls and can be arranged in any pattern on clothes to connect different areas of the body, according to NUS. The meta-material is also said to be “cost-effective”, costing less than $7.37 per meter of textile.
The “smart” clothes are described as being “highly robust” as they can be folded and bent with minimal loss to signal strength. The conductive strips can even be cut or torn without interfering with the wireless capabilities, the university said.
And because of its wireless property, these clothes can be washed, dried and ironed as with regular garments.
Looking ahead, the research team said it is talking to potential partners to commercialize the meta-material, particularly in the realms of athletics and healthcare where body performance and health monitoring are crucial.
“Potential applications could range dramatically — from measuring a patient’s vital signs without inhibiting their freedom of motion, to adjusting the volume in an athlete’s wireless headphones with a single hand motion,” NUS said.
Here’s how it all works.