Electronic textiles are fabrics that enable digital components such as a battery and a light (including small computers), and electronics to be embedded in them. “Smart textiles” are fabrics that have been developed with new technologies that provide added value to the wearer.
Pailes-Friedman of the Pratt Institute states that “what makes smart fabrics revolutionary is that they have the ability to do many things that traditional fabrics cannot, including communicate, transform, conduct energy and even grow”.
Smart textiles can be broken into two different categories: aesthetic and performance enhancing. Aesthetic examples include fabrics that light up and fabrics that can change colour. Some of these fabrics gather energy from the environment by harnessing vibrations, sound, or heat, reacting to these inputs.
The colour changing and lighting scheme can also work by embedding the fabric with electronics that can power it. Performance enhancing smart textiles are intended for use in athletic, extreme sports, and military applications.
These include fabrics designed to regulate body temperature, reduce wind resistance, and control muscle vibration – all of which may improve athletic performance. Other fabrics have been developed for protective clothing, to guard against extreme environmental hazards, such as radiation and the effects of space travel.
- Health monitoring of vital signs such as heart rate, respiration rate, temperature, activity, and posture.
- Sports training data acquisition
- Monitoring personnel handling hazardous materials
- Tracking the position and status of soldiers in action
- Military app – Soldier’s bulletproof kevlar vest; if the wearer is shot, the material can sense the bullet’s impact and send a radio message back to base
- Monitoring pilot or truck driver fatigue
- Diagnosing amputee discomfort
- Innovative fashion (wearable tech)
- Regain sensory perception that was previously lost by accident or birth
The health and beauty industry is also taking advantage of these innovations, which range from drug-releasing medical textiles, to fabric with moisturizer, perfume, and anti-aging properties. Many smart clothing, wearable technology, and wearable computing projects involve the use of e-textiles.
Electronic textiles are distinct from and wearable computing because the emphasis is placed on the seamless integration of textiles with electronic elements like microcontrollers, sensors, and actuators. Furthermore, e-textiles need not be wearable. For instance, e-textiles are also found in interior design.
A new report from Cientifica Research examines the markets for textile-based wearable technologies, the companies producing them, and the enabling technologies. The report identifies three distinct generations of textile wearable technologies:
- “First-generation” attach a sensor to apparel. This approach is currently taken by sportswear brands such as Adidas, Nike, and Under Armour
- “Second-generation” products embed the sensor in the garment, as demonstrated by current products from Samsung, Alphabet, Ralph Lauren, and Flex.
- In “third-generation” wearables, the garment is the sensor. A growing number of companies are creating pressure, strain, and temperature sensors for this purpose.
Future applications for e-textiles may be developed for sports and well-being products, and medical devices for patient monitoring. Technical textiles, fashion and entertainment will also be significant applications.