Siri on your shirt? Futuristic fabric makes way for clothes that work like smartphones

SHANGHAI, China — A futuristic green fabric that works like a smartphone — with the ability turn clothing into touch screens — has been developed by Chinese scientists. The high-tech fabric is powered by solar energy and combines conductive and luminescent fibers with cotton. It is set to revolutionize communications, navigation, and healthcare.

The fabric will improve safety for cyclists, motorists, and members of the emergency services. With the brush of a sleeve, users can, for example, instantly see a “textile map” on their arm. The fabric may even become a mind-reading device for those who have lost the ability to speak, according to engineers.

“The cloth is flexible, breathable, and durable — making it ideal for the real world,” says the study’s corresponding author Huisheng Peng, a professor of polymer science and chemical engineering at Fudan University, in a statement per South West News Service.

Wearable technology has been promised for years, but creating large displays integrated with functional systems has proved challenging. “Conventional solid-state materials are not readily compatible with textiles because they struggle to withstand the natural deformation that occurs when fabrics are worn and washed,” Peng explains.

The researchers overcame this issue spectacularly with a display fabric almost 20 feet long and 10 inches wide. “It weaves conductive and luminescent fibers together with cotton. It’s integrated with a touch-sensitive fabric keyboard and power supply that harvests solar energy,” adds Peng.

Smart Fabric
Application scenarios for display textile as real-time location and message communication. (Fudan University)

In experiments, the electronic fabric worked as a navigation tool showing an interactive map. It also performed communications by sending or retrieving messages via a Bluetooth connection with a smartphone. “The display is produced by illuminating units that form where the conductive and luminescent fibers meet at contact points in the woven fabric,” says Peng.

The fabric survived 1,000 cycles of bending, stretching, and pressing. Brightness remained after 100 cycles of washing and drying. With the addition of more applications, the fabric is expected to shape the next generation of electronic communication tools.

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“We first prepare two kinds of fiber electrodes — one coated with active material and the other transparent and elastic. Then we weave them together as yarns to produce the display textile. The display textile is highly flexible and has been demonstrated for three typical applications,”  says Peng. “They are not just conceptions. In fact, we can produce such display textiles at a large scale with low cost. We are already providing them to companies. I think they will start to be used this year — at least no later than next year.”

The potential is vast, both for the public and the private sector. “First, policemen or people in other special fields may wear them at night, so it is safer,” suggests Peng. “Second, for people who cannot talk, when they wear such display textiles that convert brain waves to signals on the clothes, they can easily and efficiently communicate with others. Thirdly, when you drive a car or ride a bike, you can see a ‘textile map’ on your arm.”

The study’s findings are published in the journal Nature.

SWNS writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.