Scientists led by the University of Exeter's Professor Monica Craciun may be on the verge of taking smart clothing to the next level with flexible woven Graphene fibers, according to research published in the Nature Partner Journal series' Flexible Electronics. The technology directly integrates electronic components such as display elements and touch sensors into fibers in the fabric of the material. Those are comprised of graphene-based fibers that can measure as thin as a single atom, interwoven with traditional polypropylene fibers. That allows the design to be durable and to remain close to the current commercial processes used for creating textiles. The use of transparent fibers also allows imagery to be shown directly on the fabric rather depending on separate components glued on a shirt or other clothing. Other flexible components can be incorporated in that process too, without the need for electrodes or wires comprised of thicker or less durable materials. The researchers were able to use the discovery to create display-enhanced fabrics with touch interaction capabilities but say the technology's use could extend to gathering health metrics and other functions.
Background: Smart clothing isn't a new concept and several such 'wearables' have already been launched to market. That includes Google's collaborative effort with Levis Strauss on the Jacquard Trucker Jacket launched in 2017. The jacket enabled touch interactions and feedback through integrated electronics but was ultimately a commercial flop due to a lack of appeal likely created by the durability of the electronics, pricing, and relatively limited functionality. Most of those problems could feasibly be solved by this latest technology since it increases the efficiency of the process, with more durability and usefulness in general. Google and others haven't necessarily given up on the concept, with the search giant recently being awarded a patent for energy-efficient haptic feedback in connected clothing. In summary, the invention allows a single vibration motor to resonate feedback more strongly across a length of clothing through "transmission structures" woven into a textile. Coupled with touch integration and display capabilities, that could be a powerful tool for generating a broader range of wearable smart devices in the clothing category.
The recent patents and the new research into flexible electronic fibers could not have come at a better time either. Although the 'smart clothing' category is still small, analysts from several firms have predicted that it is growing and will continue to grow over the next five years. More optimistic predictions have estimated that the category may be slightly more popular by 2022 than head-worn or sports watch wearables are today — with around 20 million units shipped in that year. If put in use by technology manufacturers, those numbers could be accurate and growth might continue exponentially beyond that initial mainstream entry point. The creation process has been noted as not differing greatly from the traditional manufacturing processes. So it isn't unrealistic to expect any number of tech and textiles-based OEMs to explore the possibilities at very least.
Impact: The implications of the research are fairly unambiguous but whether any companies choose to make use of the discovery remains to be seen. As mentioned above, the enhanced fibers effectively allow fully flexible touchscreen integration within transparent versions of the fibers and use with secondary sensors. A technology company could implement a piece of clothing or wearable accessories that are completely customizable. Home decor such as floor mats, rugs, shower curtains, drapes, and more might also be engineered from the fibers to generate images or with various sensors for other uses. That could include incorporation for a range of purposes from less obvious security measures to the gathering of health-related data or simply be used to turn any textile into a display. The only drawback is that it will probably take years for the discovery to be thoroughly vetted and developed at a commercial level.