Electronic textiles, also known as smart garments, smart clothing, smart textiles, or smart fabrics, are fabrics that enable digital components such as a battery and a light (including small computers), and electronics to be embedded in them. Smart textiles are fabrics that have been developed with new technologies that provide added value to the wearer. Pailes-Friedman of the Pratt Institute states that “what makes smart fabrics revolutionary is that they have the ability to do many things that traditional fabrics cannot, including communicate, transform, conduct energy and even grow”.
Smart textiles can be broken into two different categories: aesthetic and performance enhancing. Aesthetic examples include fabrics that light up and fabrics that can change colour. Some of these fabrics gather energy from the environment by harnessing vibrations, sound or heat, reacting to these inputs. The colour changing and lighting scheme can also work by embedding the fabric with electronics that can power it. Performance enhancing smart textiles are intended for use in athletic, extreme sports and military applications. These include fabrics designed to regulate body temperature, reduce wind resistance, and control muscle vibration – all of which may improve athletic performance. Other fabrics have been developed for protective clothing, to guard against extreme environmental hazards, such as radiation and the effects of space travel. The health and beauty industry is also taking advantage of these innovations, which range from drug-releasing medical textiles, to fabric with moisturizer, perfume, and anti-aging properties. Many smart clothing, wearable technology, and wearable computing projects involve the use of e-textiles.
Electronic textiles are distinct from wearable computing because emphasis is placed on the seamless integration of textiles with electronic elements like micro controllers, sensors, and actuators. Furthermore, e-textiles need not be wearable. For instance, e-textiles are also found in interior design.
The field of fibretronics explores how electronic and computational functionality can be integrated into textile fibers. The three distinct generations of textile wearable technologies are
- “First generation” attach a sensor to apparel. This approach is currently taken by sportswear brands such as Adidas, Nike and Under Armour
- “Second generation” products embed the sensor in the garment, as demonstrated by current products from Samsung, Alphabet, Ralph Lauren and Flex.
- In “third generation” wearable, the garment is the sensor. A growing number of companies are creating pressure, strain and temperature sensors for this purpose
Sensoria’s fitness T-shirt, Sensoria’s smart socks
Recent advances, such as embroidering circuits into fabric or transparent sensor material that can be printed on to textiles, are helping to create a range of technologies that bring together the clothing, technology and textile industries to create fabrics with capabilities for users as varied as athletes, patients, soldiers and ordinary consumers. In practical terms, companies like Globe in the US are developing smart fabrics to measure the extreme physiological stress that can be experienced during the course of an individual’s duties – for example, a firefighter or a soldier.Using smart fabrics technology, the company has developed a Wearable Advanced Sensor Platform (WASP) that is being deployed to track a firefighter’sheart rate, core body temperature, respiration rate, activity levels, posture and other factors, as well as provide tracking and improve overall situational awareness.The potential of smart fabrics is huge and recent research suggests the market, including fabrics manufactured with smart materials and those that use embedded sensors, could be worth more than $1.8billion by 2021, driven by the IoT, developments in smart materials and in smaller, more powerful sensors.Research has seen significant developments in electrically conductive yarns and threads, conductive polymers, shape memory materials, phase-changing materials, self-cleaning and antimicrobial materials, as well as nanomaterials. As a result, more applications are moving beyond the laboratory, with end-user applications for the medical, health and fitness, military and security, fashion and non-clothing applications beginning to appear.
Medical is expected to be the largest market for smart textiles and could be worth $1billion by 2021. Using smart clothing, patients with chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart problems, could be monitored continuously, with updates being regularly sent to their physicians. “In the health sector,