How’s this for creepy: you buy a new sweater from Salt Lake City’s The Stockist boutique, a sweater that comes with a mobile app. You’re not sure why until the app starts sending you messages about your movement. You soon discover the sweater can ‘feel’ you move underneath it. Sound crazy? Well, it is possible thanks to researchers at MIT.
The good folks at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab have taken wearables to the next level by combining traditional textiles with customized functional fibers to create what they call ‘tactile electronics‘. They believe their invention has applications that range from improving athletic training to monitoring health.
- One Big Sensor
Although the researchers explain that their smart clothing consists of multiple sensors represented by each piece of functional fiber, a smart piece of clothing would be more or less one big sensor. Each of the functional fibers would sense pressure created by movement.
In theory, a complete outfit of smart clothing could tell anyone monitoring you whether you are standing, sitting, walking, or running. The clothing could be used to monitor your vital signs as well. Maybe your shirt monitors your heart rate and respiration. Your pants can monitor your body temperature.
- Self-Correcting Technology
Another exciting aspect of the MIT research is the idea of self-correcting technology. Researchers knew going into their project that every sensor array includes some sensors that inevitably fail to function properly. In order to make their smart clothing as accurate as possible, they had to find a way to make it self-correcting.
They devised a machine learning algorithm that allows the sensors to recognize and self-correct when others in the array are not performing at base level. Best of all, the sensors pretty much supervise themselves. That is pretty impressive by any measure. Still, there are concerns.
It is easy to see how clothing of this type could be beneficial for improving health or enabling people who would otherwise require around-the-clock care to live independently. It would obviously benefit athletes by helping them train and practice more effectively. Yet there is always the nagging issue of privacy.
- Where You Are and What You’re Doing
Creating these types of technologies requires considering the ramifications of your inventions being used by people with less than noble intentions. A piece of smart clothing capable of determining motion and position can also be used to reveal other things about you. In effect, anyone monitoring your clothing could tell where you are and what you’re doing.
If you can load a piece of clothing with functional fibers capable of sensing pressure, why not add fibers that can pick up audio signals? And how about video signals?
It is one thing to say that such technology could be useful for healthcare and geriatric monitoring. It’s a completely different thing to allow the technology to escape into the mainstream to be mass-produced and sold to unsuspecting customers at clothing boutiques.
- We’ll See Where It Goes
For now, you will not be able to visit The Stockist and buy smart sweaters and socks off the rack. In fact, you might never be able to do so. It could be that smart clothing will forever be utilized on a limited basis. We will have to wait to see where it goes.
Nonetheless, now that the technology is out there, we have to be incredibly careful about how it is used. It rarely takes much to transition from good intentions to arenas that were never foreseen. The fact that so many new inventions come about as a result of warfare is evidence of that.