Nano-Netting – Super strong nano fibers so small they are invisible
to the human eye, giving the illusion of being suspended in air

Futurist Thomas Frey:  Imagine walking into a store in the future, a store whose business is comprised solely of applying coatings to your clothing. All of the coatings will be invisible to the human eye.

As the consumer, you will have to choose between 32 different attributes that can be mixed together and applied to the fabric. So what are these 32 different attributes?

Today’s high-tech fabrics are either treated with chemicals or polymers and specially engineered with features such as durability, stain-proofing, wrinkle-resistance, and weather protection.

In addition to these characteristics, scientists are producing smart fabrics, with built-in data flow systems, that connect sensors and imbedded microprocessors with features that improve wearability and provide protective and medical diagnostic abilities.

So what’s next?

With the advent of Rayon in the 1920s, an era of high-tech fabrics was born.  Rayon, introduced by DuPont as a “continuous filament viscose fiber,” has become the durable and silky-soft alternative to silk.

The abilities of high-tech materials to keep athletes dry and comfortable have sparked a $9-billion market for high-performance outdoor apparel.  An excellent example of the power of this market niche is the wildly successful Gore-Tex fabric produced by W.L. Gore & Associates, Inc.  The fabric is a fluoropolymer, a manufactured fiber that forms a barrier to wind and water but still allows air to pass through it.  Body heat and moisture can evaporate through Gore-Tex even while it protects from wind, rain, sleet or snow.  It’s used in everything from jackets to shoes to backpacks.  Gore-Tex often costs three times as much as non-treated pieces.  W.L. Gore’s annual revenues are about $2 billion, employing nearly 8,000 people.

A surprising material adapted to apparel recently is silver.  Long known to fight bacteria and odors, silver has been used historically to store foodstuffs.  However, many manufacturers are finding new ways to use the metal.  In March 2006, Samsung Electronics launched a washer that utilizes silver ions to sanitize laundry without using hot water.  In clothing, Adidas, Brooks Sports and Polartec are using a silver-coated nylon fiber called X-Static produced by Noble Biomaterials, Inc. The fibers, used in shirts, caps and socks, protect against odor and promote thermal regulation, since silver is a natural energy conductor.  NanoHorizons, Inc. is furthering the cause of silver for use in apparel by developing an engineering process that disperses silver pellets uniformly through the materials used for textile applications.  The process prolongs the silver’s presence in fabric even through repeated washings.

Specialized fabrics in the future will be sensitive to a wide variety of external substances, including harmful toxins or chemical agents.  The U.S. military has already incorporated patches worn on uniform cuffs that change color when harmful agents are detected in the surrounding air.  Scientists at MIT have created smart fabrics that filter or shield wearers from radiation by combining synthetic fibers with an optical device called a dielectric mirror.

Pushing the Limits

As we push the limits of our thinking on nano-fabrics and nano-coatings, it may begin to sound like something out of science fiction. But, putting this into perspective, the ideas I mention below are not as far out as some may think.

1.) Nano-Netting – Using super strong fibers so small that they are invisible to the human eye, nano-netting will provide a fibrous support structure that is visually non-intrusive but capable of keeping out insects, birds, and other unwanted animals.  The density of the netting can be adjusted to match specific requirements.  Objects can be suspended in air with seemingly invisible support.  Invisible fences, invisible screens, and invisible cars and windmills will all be possible.

2.) Liquid Shells – Ultra-fine shells will be created for liquid products sold in retail stores.  These shells will range from completely flexible to totally rigid, with some offering a shape changing option to better accommodate the particular space needs of an individual. Alternatively, water, soft drinks, energy drinks, wine, beer, and a variety of other drinkable liquids will begin to experiment with “one gulp” or “quarter gulp” micro containers.  Containers with sixteen one ounce, gulp packs will make it easy to pop a quick drink into someone’s mouth.

3.) Indestructible Coatings – Bearings that never wear out, highways that never deteriorate, and buildings that last forever are the promise of indestructible coatings.  But indestructible materials will lead to indestructible trash some day.  So every durable coating will need an “off” switch.

4.) Food Coatings – Based on an individual’s dietary requirements, food particles will be coated in a way to increase or decrease the body’s absorption rate.  Smart surface coatings will be able to anticipate the digestive system’s reaction to a certain food, and adjust the coating interface accordingly. Losing weight will be easy when we make it less digestible.

5.) Organ-View Clothing – As part of our on-going effort to monitor our own biological functions, it may be possible to design a fabric that serves as an optical lens into our inner selves.  Think of this as a wearable CAT scan system with variable-adjust focal point settings, zoom powers down to a near-nano scale, and flexible data-capture sensors built-in. The fashion options here will be incredible.

6.) Memory Inducer Coatings – A specialized coating placed on a product will activate a person’s senses in a way to link the product with positive memories.  Simply touching the surface will trigger a series of images and memories inside a person’s brain.  As an example, some people will smell fresh baked pie, others will hear a song that reminds them of their mother, and still others will feel like a warm blanket has been draped over their shoulders on a cool fall evening.  This kind of coating will take the experience marketing industry to a whole new level.

7.) Self-Moving Fabrics – It will no longer be good enough for smart fabrics to merely collect and transmit information, the next generation will have the ability to take action.  Dirty clothes will pick up after themselves, snuggly fitting shirts and pants will readjust themselves for maximum comfort, and torn clothing will send themselves out for repair.  Beds will make themselves, sheets will change themselves according to a set rotation, and pillows will have the ability to sense pressure points and reform themselves accordingly.

8.) Super Skin Coatings – If you can imagine a flexible skin coating that will allow us to swim to depths of 2,000 feet or more below the ocean surface, walk across the surface of the moon without a suit, enter into caustic chemical environments unphased, and survive a nuclear blast, then you have the idea of what super skin coating will be like.

Some Final Thoughts…

As with other posts on the future, my goal is to help stimulate your thinking on what’s possible.

It is often the extreme options that spark our imagination the most, and give us ideas that are outside the normal limits we place around our thinking.  In much the same manner that outrageous ideas from 20-30 years ago are now in common use today, some of today’s extreme options will be the commonly used products of the future.

By Futurist Thomas Frey