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November 24, 2017
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adidas' miCoach Elite System, a state-of-the-art innovation that tracks on-field data in real-time. Source: adidas.com.

When it comes to superheroes and their powers, it's impossible to understate the importance of their uniforms. Beyond concealing their true identities, they often serve important functional purposes - as was amusingly highlighted by eccentric fashion designer, Edna Mode, in the brilliant Pixar film, The Incredibles.

Back in the real world, Juan Hinestroza, associate professor of Fiber Science and principal investigator of the Textiles Nanotechnology Lab at Cornell University, credits fictional superheroes as the "founding fathers" of his research on textile nanotechnology. During the Smart Textiles: Fashion That Responds panel at the Eyebeam Art + Technology Center in New York City on May 1, Hinestroza noted, "If they believed that it [developing smart textiles] was possible in the 1930s and 1940s, than it's possible to develop these technologies now."

Adidas miCoach Elite System
Adidas' miCoach Elite System.
Source: adidas.com.

Hinestroza, along with fellow innovators Bryce Beamer of adidas, Genevieve Dion of Drexel University and Becky Stern of Adafruit Industries, came together on the panel to discuss their latest research on smart textiles and wearable technology. With the common belief that textiles can go beyond simply wearing, much of their respective work and research combines scientific and technological concepts to enhance garments.

Bryce Beamer, Adidas

In the sporting realm, clothing is evolving from simply being indicative of team membership to a tool to improve overall field performance. Bryce Beamer, Senior Manager of Apparel Development in the Wearable Sports Electronics division at adidas, is producing and integrating gadgets into sportswear using the adidas-developed miCoach Elite System. The system is a state-of-the-art innovation that tracks on-field data in real-time and enables both coaches and players to play faster, stronger and smarter.

The main components of the system include: the TECHFIT ELITE (a base layer worn by athletes that tracks heart rate); the PLAYER_CELL (a small sensing device inside the base layer that measures speed, distance, acceleration, pace, power and position); the miCoach ELITE BASE (a water-resistant, portable receiver that collects data from the PLAYER_CELL and relays it to an iPad in real time); and miCoach ELITE DASH (an iPad app for live-monitoring of collected data of athletes across multiple metrics).

WHOLEGARMENT knitting machine from Shima Seike.
Source: shimaseike.eu.

For the 2013 season, adidas and Major League Soccer (MLS) have partnered up to use the system for all members of the league's 19 teams. "Our ultimate goal is to create metrics from data to help coaches, as well as engage fans," enthused Beamer.

Genevieve Dion, Drexel University

During the panel, associate professor and director of the Shima Seiki Haute Technology Laboratory at Drexel University, Genevieve Dion asked the audience, "Can garments become the actual device?"

In collaboration with Shima Seiki, a world leader in 3-D computerised knitting systems and knitting machines, Dion is working with other researchers, designers and collaborators to develop new wearable technologies and smart textiles, as well as to explore new methods of production for their commercialisation.

The Shima Seiki Haute Technology Laboratory is composed of SDS-ONE APEX3 3-D design workstations and WHOLEGARMENT knitting machines. 3-D models of garments can be simulated using the SDS-ONE APEX3 workstations. The data is then collected from the workstation and inputted into a WHOLEGARMENT knitting machine, whereupon an exact replica of the 3-D simulated garment is created - similar to 3D printing.

One of the projects Dion is currently working on is the Belly Band, a 24/7 monitoring machine for high-risk pregnant women. The garment is made of conductive yarn with a fabric antenna and allows a woman's physician to monitor changes in the uterus through transmitted radio signals. Dion explained that eventually, these devices will be able to help prevent and diagnose problems with the fetus, prevent premature births and reduce millions of stillbirths per year worldwide.

adafruit
Graphic eInk Development Board.
Source: adafruit.com.

Becky Stern, Adafruit

Becky Stern, Director of Wearable Electronics at Adafruit Industries, is encouraging people to integrate physical computing technologies into their clothing, crafts and other aspects of daily life. Founded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineer, Limor Fried, Adafruit is an online community and marketplace for electronic hobbyists of all ages and skill levels. The company sells DIY open-source electronic hardware kits for a wide-range of products designed by the Adafruit team. 

Some products found on Adafruit are purely for aesthetic purposes, such as the Candle Flicker LED Hair Bow, while others serve a particular purpose, such as the popular TV-B-Gone jacket by Stern. If one finds television during dinner at a restaurant unacceptable (as I do!), he or she can simply purchase the TV-B-Gone Kit and follow the tutorials to embed the device on a jacket. If you're at a restaurant with televisions on, simply unzip your jacket to turn them all off. "The embedded TV remote is activated by a switch along the zipper made from conductive thread, zapping all sets in range," Stern explained further on her personal website.

Juan Hinestroza, Cornell University

Meanwhile, Hinestroza and his team are working to "force cotton to do what cotton normally does not do." At the molecular level, the team has been able to synthesise nanoparticles on cotton fibers to kill bacteria, monitor temperature, lessen the effects of UV radiation, and create colour on surfaces without the use of toxic dyes.

[Hinestroza and his team] has been able to synthesise nanoparticles on cotton fibers to kill bacteria, monitor temperature, lessen the effects of UV radiation, and create colour on surfaces without the use of toxic dyes.

The distance between nanoparticles is particularly important for manipulating cotton, explained Hinestroza. In order to create colour on garments, for example, 300 layers of nanoparticles (each 20 nanometers thick) are attached to the surface of cotton. Individual atoms are then laid down along with nanoparticles of silver, gold, and platinum, which creates colour. Manipulating the space between nanoparticles can also produce cotton that can conduct electricity and repel oils and water as demonstrated by Cornell Design student Abbey Liebman, who created a dress that can charge an iPhone using solar panels.

Hinestroza also showed how manipulating cellulose at the molecular level can create new molecules such as metal organic frameworks (MOFs). Hinestroza told the Cornell Chronicle, "The initial goal of attaching the MOFs to fibers was sponsored by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency [an agency within the U.S. Department of Defense for countering weapons of mass destruction]. We wanted to harness the power of these molecules to absorb gases and incorporate these MOFs into fibers, which allows us to make very efficient filtration systems." Through this, Hinestroza and students like Jen Keane were able to create garments that could absorb and trap toxic gases, or even insecticides, in a selective manner.

Cotton is one of the most important textile fibers in the world, with approximately 80 countries producing cotton, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Hinestroza believes that if cotton can be manipulated in multiple ways, "we may have to only use one piece of clothing all our life." 

Wearable technology is a remarkable concept to begin with, but it becomes that much more valuable when it can also perform useful functions for everyday life. Although there are many concerns with wearable technology as evidenced by the recent criticisms of Google Glass, it can offer a new dimension for people who make or design clothing or play sports, as demonstrated by the work at Adafruit and adidas. It can improve aspects of the health and military industries, as shown by the work of Dion and Hinestroza. One day, superheroes (if they do exist) may even take advantage of these novel, smart textiles.

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