Engineering researchers are designing the ultimate fabrics, for casual or military wear

November 07, 2002

Blacksburg, Va., Nov. 7, 2002 -- Mark Jones and Tom Martin are Virginia Tech engineering researchers, not fashion designers, but they are creating the ultimate fabrics of the future.

The researchers are designing e-textiles -- cloth interwoven with electronic components -- for use as personal "wearable computers" and as large sensing and communications fabrics.

Jones and Martin, both faculty in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech, are principal investigators on two federally funded e-textiles projects.

With funding from the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Martin and Jones are working with colleagues at the University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute (ISI) in Arlington, Va., on a project they call STRETCH.

The aim of STRETCH (not an acronym) is to develop large e-textile fabrics that will look like typical military equipment, such as tents or camouflage nets. The electronic wires and sensors woven into the fabric will perform the complex procedure of listening for the faint sounds of distant vehicles being deployed by the enemy.

Within the fabric, the sensors and their connecting wires will communicate with one another to create patterns of information. This information can then be translated by computer software into images that will enable soldiers to determine the location of detected sounds.

"We're designing and constructing a 30-foot-long prototype for the STRETCH fabric," Jones said. "The goal of the project is to develop a low-cost, flexibly deployable e-textile system that has low power requirements and doesn't rely on radio waves." The Virginia Tech and ISI researchers plan to test the prototype in November.

The military already has sound detection systems that rely on radio waves, but communication via radio waves can alert an adversary to a military unit's location. The e-textiles system being developed as part of STRETCH produces no detectable energy and also requires less power than radio-wave-operated systems.

"Cloth has properties that can be useful for certain electronic applications," said Robert Parker, director of ISI and co-principal investigator on the STRETCH project. "We can easily and cheaply make large pieces of cloth, light and strong, that can be stretched over frames into any desired shape."

Sound detection is not the only potential use for the STRETCH e-textile system. Fabrics can be woven with sensors that can detect chemicals, pick up satellite signals, and perform other feats. Jones and his colleagues also foresee numerous industrial uses.

Jones and Martin also have received a $400,000 National Science Foundation Information Technology Research (ITR) grant to design wearable computers made of e-textiles.

The generic concept of wearable computers is a small CPU in a fanny-pack connected to a cumbersome head gear that holds a display screen at eye-level. The Virginia Tech ITR project is something completely different.

Because the wires and sensors in e-textiles are woven into the fabric, wearable computers could be constructed much like normal-looking shirts or hats or other types of cloth apparel. These computers wouldn't connect users to the internet or send and receive e-mail, but would perform specific functions necessary to the wearers.

"Wearable computers constructed of e-textiles offer context awareness," Martin said. "They can be designed to be aware of the user's motions and of his surroundings."

For example, sensors called accelerometers -- which are used to cue airbags to deploy -- can detect changes in speed and direction. There are visual sensors that can project images to tiny displays clipped to eye glasses. An e-textile shirt for a blind user might include tiny vibrating motors that would provide cues about approaching objects.

In addition to weaving fabrics to test as wearable computers, Martin and Jones are working on reducing the size and weight of batteries used to power the electronic components. They also are developing software that will help e-textile researchers plot the electronics woven into fabrics after they are fashioned into apparel -- "so they'll be able to figure out what is where when the clothing comes back from the tailor," Martin said.

The potential uses for e-textile apparel range from the everyday, such as sportswear that could tell joggers how fast and how far they've run, to emergency services, such as uniforms that could enable firefighters to map their way in and back out of dark buildings that are on fire.

The most extensive uses, Martin believes, will be industrial applications. "For instance, books of schematics that construction and maintenance workers now have to carry can be put in digital formats and imprinted on wearable computers, freeing their hands for tasks," he explained.
For more information about these projects:

Mark Jones -- 540-231-8849;
Tom Martin -- 540-231-1739;
PR contact: Liz Crumbley 540-231-9772;

Virginia Tech

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