Imagine a handbag that warns you if you are about to forget your umbrella or wallet, and which you can later turn into a scarf that displays today’s pollution levels. Or how about creating a wall hanging that glows if someone tries to use your home’s wireless internet connection?
All these bizarre objects could soon be possible thanks to a system of computerised fabric patches developed by engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Each patch contains a functional unit of the system – a microprocessor and memory plus either a radio transceiver, a sensor, a microphone, batteries or a display. Put the patches together in different ways and you can create a variety of information-providing or environment-sensing objects, say developers Adrian Cable, Gauri Nanda and Michael Bove at MIT’s Media Lab.
To keep it waterproof, the circuit board inside a patch is coated with a hard transparent resin. It is then padded with a thin layer of foam and encapsulated in the chosen fabric. It can be populated with a variety of components, from Bluetooth transmitters to a cut-down PC motherboard.
The patches are joined using Velcro, which has been modified to enable electrical as well as physical connections. Wires from the circuit board are attached to silver-coated contacts in the Velcro. In this way, data and power can flow from one module to the next. Using square or triangular patches the user can fashion, and refashion, useful objects such as bags, belts, curtains or scarves. “You could wear a system as a scarf today and a belt tomorrow,” Bove says.