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No.15 My Pants Have Ideas of Their Own

September 16, 2009
by Hal Varian and Erik Vance

The big idea: “Smart clothing” is the catchphrase for a genre of clothing that directly integrates computer technology with fabric.

For instance, Levi Strauss & Co., based in San Francisco, is working on a jacket that will play music. Levi already features a few garments that host gadgets such as iPods attached to the outside. But the goal is to integrate the technology, as it were, seamlessly.

One way to do this is by using something like silk organza, an airy traditional fabric, with copper wire woven into the threads. The circuits are integrated into the fabric itself, and power is generated either by solar panels or by the wearer’s movements. The keypad is made of cloth, yet is sensitive to touch.

Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are another way computer technology may show up in fashion. Today they are used for computer monitors and TV screens, but in the future we may see programmable wallpaper and upholstery, for instance. Imagine the color scheme for your living room changing at the click of a button.

We’ll also see programmable clothes built using LED technology, so you’ll be able to wear yellow polka dots in the morning and a Tartan plaid in the afternoon—without changing wardrobes.

What’s next: Smart clothing also has prospects for lifesaving. Researchers are looking at heart rate monitors that could track a patient’s health, or shirts that tell field medics exactly where a soldier has been shot.

There are some problems to solve. For example, how do you wash a garment when the fabric itself is transmitting information and power? All the same, South Korea, which is aggressively pursuing smart clothing, estimates the global market for smart clothing will be $7 billion by 2014.

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