'Smart clothing' is the next step in wearable tech
By Aliyah Sahni

When someone mentions wearable tech, you would probably think of your smart watch, a fitness tracker or maybe even your wireless headphones.

Now, thanks to more research and inventions by scientists across the globe, we can add "smart clothing" to the list of wearable tech.

The latest invention is by researchers at the National University of Singapore's Institute for Health Innovation & Technology and NUS Engineering, who have developed a special conductive fabric which allows signals like WiFi and bluetooth to pass through it.

It basically means that the wearer becomes a circuit board - which makes the connection between multiple smart devices faster, efficient and more secure.

Assistant Professor John Ho oversaw the 10-member team behind the invention.

"What we have invented here is a way to put special conductive patterns onto clothing and the patterns are selected such that they can actually control wireless signals that are being transmitted by regular devices like smart watches or smart phones," he told CGTN. "Rather than to have these signals move out away from you, they glide on the surface of your body."

These smart devices communicate with each other using radio waves like WiFi and bluetooth. Typically, these waves travel outwards in all directions before establishing a connection with the intended gadget. This method leads to signal loss and causes a massive drain on the battery.

Thanks to the new technology, "any wireless device transmitting on your body can transmit about 1000 times faster."

"Most of the devices spend the majority of their battery life just transmitting these wireless signals. So, that can translate to much more energy efficient communication. Second would be maybe security. It means that anyone standing around you can't listen in on that signal - that signal is held near the surface within 10 cm of your body," Ho said.

Significantly, users don't need to make any modifications to your devices. Smart textile is compatible with any mechanism which uses WiFi and bluetooth to connect.

The fabric, which is being referred to as "metamaterial", consists of a comb-shaped strip which is placed on top of the clothing. These strips can be arranged in any pattern necessary to connect all areas of the body.

The team is already in talks with potential partners to commercialize this technology, while there can be several applications for smart clothing. Ho and his team are especially excited about its use in athletics and healthcare.

Take a regular stress test for example. It is a complicated, obtrusive system which requires the patient to be attached to machines through multiple wires.

"He has to wear all these sensors and these sensors have to be all wired to this little box and that kind of restricts his motion. Also outside of this special test room we cannot use this kind of system," explains Ho.

"We are excited to find ways to replace this very complicated health monitoring system with maybe a single hospital gown that could potentially do the same thing, monitor how your body is behaving over a long period of time," he added.

Though it is still early days, Ho envisions that the technology could in the future help reduce the reliance on invasive tests for vitals monitoring.

"If you kind of think about most ways of doing health monitoring currently, they are basically a snapshot of what your body looks like at a moment in time. Something like MRI scans, CT scan."

"What these wearable devices allow you to do is capture for the first time how your body changes dynamically over a period of hours, days, maybe even weeks. That kind of information could maybe give me something fundamentally different than what invasive tests could do and maybe in some context hopefully even replace what invasive tests could do," Ho told CGTN

The application could be similar for athletes as well.

"This would very interesting for athletics in a context where this kind of complicated system would not apply but with wearing a special fabric we might be able to give these athletes a way to measure performance in a way that would otherwise not be possible."

The material is highly durable, robust and it functions like any regular piece of clothing. It can be folded and bent with minimal loss to the signal strength. The garments can also be washed, dried, and ironed.

Not just that, it is also immensely cost effective and takes less than 10 U.S. dollars per meter to produce.