MIT’s digital fibre to revolutionise wearable tech

Fibers@MIT, a research group at MIT, has developed a digital fibre with artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities. It could well be setting Moore’s law in motion for computational fabrics. But a lot depends on market acceptability and use-cases for this technology. Let’s have a look at what changes this innovation can bring in e-textiles.

It isn’t new that human beings have been tinkering with naturally occurring materials to produce clothing or wearables. Traditionally, clothing was only used as protection against our natural surroundings. With almost universal presence of clothing and textiles in our daily lives, it became increasingly more obvious that further opportunities were available to tinker with textile and clothing materials. Blending of different fibres was an early and significant technological change bringing multiple characteristics of different materials into one, however, that didn’t alter the utility of textile materials beyond clothing, industrial use and aesthetics.

Smart textiles are a much broader term and includes early inventions such as lycra and gore fibres which have much more dynamic characteristics than conventional clothing. These are called “passive” smart textiles as they provide additional features than traditional textiles.

MIT’s digital fibre – what has changed?

Researchers at the MIT, more specifically at the research group Fibers@MIT, have furthered the experiments with electronic textiles and developed what they call a digital fibre, with capacity to not just store information about the user’s movement and vital signs, but also has machine learning and artificial intelligence capabilities enabling recognition of patterns and anomalies in the user’s health. Primarily, this is an innovation in the functionality of the chips, while how the electronics are embedded in the fibre has seen several experiments in the textile space. The process of fitting multiple electronic devices within a single textile fibre is derived from what is called the “thermal drawing process” in the optical fibre technology. This technology is also very recent in electronics.

Could we use computational fabrics more widely?

Researchers at Fibers@MIT and many other research labs have been relentlessly perfecting wearable electronics in the form of clothing, but the technology is yet to see much market uptake. One of the primary selling points of this technology is that it doesn’t require an additional device to be worn for the user to be digitally connected. Your jacket could be your phone, your computer and your music player.1  But the fact that other electronic wearables have such a huge market penetration already, the scope for smart textiles as usual wearables can became limited. This was the case with smart textiles for the sports industry, and its unglamorous presence. Another concern with wearable electronic textiles is its washability, as electronic devices could be less wash friendly than the textile fibre it is embedded into. 

Therefore, the answer to whether we could be using this technology widely in the future lies in what utility these might be deployed for.