Exploring use cases for electronic clothes

Summary:Flora is a new wearable technology platform from Adafruit Industries that makes crafting custom wearable multi-LED pixel designs geek-easy. Here's a look at the potential applications.

Adafruit Industries, an open-source hardware company, recently announced a new wearable electronic platform that is Arduino compatible. Called Flora, the 1.75-inch device will soon be available to Adafruit's community of makers, hackers, crafters, artists, designers and engineers. Using the open source device, they'll be able to create a matrix of up to hundreds or someday more than 1,000 small LED "pixels" and embed them into fabric.

Inventor Limor Fried, named one of the “Most influential Women in Technology” by Fast Company, said that she envisions a world where people carry handbags with text or video, or wear TV screens on their T-shirts.

Here is a short Flora demo:

Embedding screens and sensors into clothing is not a new idea, but the approach Adafruit presents could be a boost for a concept that is not without technical hurdles. (How do you wash an electrified shirt?) Fried was once part of the wearable computing group at MIT, and if you look at the specs, she designed the platform to be beginner-friendly, fabric-friendly and loaded with standardized hardware and protocols, such as built-in USB and USB HID support, and forthcoming iPhone/iPad/Android apps. The kit even includes premium stainless steel thread.

In an interview on Wired, Fried and her partner Phillip Torrone, Adafruit's creative director, discussed how Flora could be used to control electronics, such as lights, sensors, and Internet communications.  “I mean, what do people really want? They want to be rock stars. They want to wear jackets with flashing lights that have flexible LED displays that can play whole videos on them,” Fried told Wired.

That may be true for some, and there's no doubt the Burning Man crowd would be among the first to join artists and fashion designers in that trajectory. But would the mainstream shop for clothing laced with flexible screens or t-shits that could loop YouTube clips?

Perhaps, but there are a lot of applications across many domains and embedded electronic could ultimately improve our lives:

  • Fashion/Art - The best example is Galaxy Dress, which Singularity Hub called an "extravagant example of what happens when technology collides full on with haute couture." There are also light-up bras and shirts with embedded speakers. This use case is most prominent since integrated electronics is still a novelty.
  • Branding - Embroidered or silk-screened logos not enough? Nothing will express your intense brand affinity or adoration for a product or ad than using your body as an electronic billboard.
  • Entertainment - If in the future, you can watch a music video on your sleeve with the same quality and resolution as your portable handheld device, then why not?
  • Communications - Military applications are most noteworthy as high-tech soldiers increasingly don sophisticated gadgets and weapons that are linked together. For example, Ohio State University researchers have created a lightweight wearable antenna that could eventually replace bulky conventional antennas.
  • Health/Data logging - Wearable sensors are essential for monitoring body signals, medical diagnosis, mHealth applications, and body area networks. They could also be used in treatment. For instance, there's a scarf that is designed to calm Autistic sufferers using textures, sounds and smells.
  • Gaming/Controllers - Vibrating game controllers are no match for haptic clothing. A few years ago, Philips Electronics created a jacket lined with vibration motors allow you to "feel" games and movies. From MP3 player/smartphone controls to wearable gestural interfaces like SixthSense, such interfaces could someday be as common as the mouse, keyboard, and touchscreen.

What did I miss? Maybe something related to social networking or smart cities. Please add your ideas in Talkback.

Topics: Hardware

About

Christopher Jablonski is a freelance technology writer. Previously, he held research analyst positions in the IT industry and was the manager of marketing editorial at CBS Interactive. He's been contributing to ZDNet since 2003. Christopher received a bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of Illinois at U... Full Bio

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