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More than decoration: the smart textiles of tomorrow

Posting in Design

Tech-minded designers are adding futuristic spins on everything from carpets to jackets to wallpaper. Some designs will probably never go mainstream, but the takeaway is clear: the textiles of tomorrow won't passively adorn our environment; they'll actively help shape it.

Popular Science picks their favorite from Textile Visionaries: Innovation and Sustainability in Textile Design (Laurence King, 2013).

  1. LED Clothes. Barbara Layne stitches clothes with LEDs so they light up with words. Not only do these fabrics broadcast text, they communicate between those wearing them. When two people hold hands, the words scroll across them.
  2. Light-Up Wallpaper (pictured above). For the Living Wall, Leah Buechley embedded wallpaper with conducive paints. The wallpaper can be programmed to monitor its environment and control lighting and sound. Run your hand across to turn on a lamp, play music, or send a message.
  3. Rug Circuits. Maggie Orth of International Fashion Machines has designed rugs that are printed with heat-sensitive thermochromic ink: when electricity is run through them, they change from dark colors to light ones.
  4. Personal Space Protector. The Spike Jacket designed by Nancy Tilbury has sensors inside it to detect when someone comes too close -- then it starts flashing. They call their technique "denim disruption."
  5. Bio-Fabrics. BioLace from Carole Collet imagines what plants would look like if they were genetically engineered to perform specific functions for us, such as grow textiles. A hybrid strawberry plant would produce both strawberry fruits and lace samples from its roots (pictured below).
  6. Fast-Learning Robot Blocks. Hayes Raffle creates materials using kinetic memory -- the ability to record and play back physical motion -- and makes them interactive. The Topobo robot, for example, "remembers" movements: you can twist its legs and it'll start walking.
  7. Color-Shifting Shirt. Using thermochromic ink, Kerri Wallace created a shirt that responds to body heat (kind of like a mood ring for your torso).
  8. Body-Sensing Wool. Design studio NunoErin added sensors and LEDs to felted wool, so it could detect conducive stuff -- like people. Their touch wall panels shift color in response to warm body heat and exhibit subtle color fluctuations in response to changes in ambient temperature.

[Popular Science]

Images: Living Wall via MIT Media Lab (top) / Strawberry Noir via BioLace (bottom)

— By on September 24, 2013, 3:59 PM PST

Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure