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A shirt that doubles as your password? UW researchers creating 'high-tech' fabrics

Researchers at the University of Washington are sewing for science. They are creating fabrics and garments that can store digital data into clothing which could allow the wearer to open electronic door locks that usually need a key card, or track clothing without the need of bar codes. (Photo: KOMO News)

SEATTLE - Researchers at the University of Washington are sewing for science.

They are creating fabrics and garments that can store digital data into clothing which could allow the wearer to open electronic door locks that usually need a key card, or track clothing without the need of bar codes.

The machine washable fabrics won’t lose the data that’s embedded in them. Think of it as a mini-hard drive made of fabric and doesn’t need batteries to work.

“This is something that previously has been unexplored,” said Justin Chan, a doctoral student at the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering.

Chan co-authored a paper recently presented at the Association for Computing Machinery’s User Interface Software and Technology Symposium.

He’s part of team that also created some primitive prototypes of their idea.

While exploring ‘smart fabric’s' being used in created wearable computing clothing, they realized the conductive threads that can pass an electric current have magnetic properties.

By programming portions of the thread using north and south magnetic charges, they realized the thread could store that information as digital ones and zero. That information can then be translated into letters and number and be read by a magnetometer that can be found in all smartphones.

The magnetometer is used in navigation apps on smartphones to find the direction of the North Pole.

“The thing about this is it’s a very cheap solution that anybody with a smartphone can use to read and write,” said Chan.

Conductive thread can be now be found in many fabric stores.

They used conventional sewing machines to embroider fabric with off-the-shelf conductive thread, whose magnetic poles start out in a random order.

By rubbing a magnet against the fabric, the researchers were able to physically align the poles in either a positive or negative direction, which can correspond to the 1's and 0's in digital data.

Magnetized fabric could be used to interact with a smartphone without touching it.

Researchers developed a glove with conductive fabric sewn into its fingertips. When gesturing over a smartphone that was embedded in a pocket, researchers were able to control specific actions such as answering a phone call or pausing or playing music.

“What it's reading is the actual data stored on the fabric,” said Chan.

He did admit, that a strong prime magnet next to the clothing could erase the embedded data.

The clothing is far from hitting the store shelves.

Future work is focused on developing custom textiles that generate stronger magnetic fields and are capable of storing a higher density of data.

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