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These New Smart Threads Can Share Data

Researchers from UC Berkeley have developed a technology that coats the threading of clothing with thermochromic paint that can change colors to represent data and information.

Berkeley color changing threads

Kristopher Sturgis

Imagine a world where the shirt you're wearing reflects your current mood, or the sweater you're wearing relays real-time information about the weather. Researchers from UC Berkeley's School of Information recently created a new technology that enables clothing threads to gradually change colors when given a volt of electricity. The technology serves as part of a platform that can embed sensors and feedback devices into fabrics and clothing seamlessly, without sacrificing comfort or style.

These "smart threads" were designed to turn wearable fabrics into a computerized display that can transform normal clothes into interactive, color-changing patterns. This kind of technology could, for example, be linked with a striped scarf that offers real-time travel information for bus and train schedules. As the number of minutes pass before the next train or bus arrives, the stripes on the scarf slowly fade one by one.

"These threads are really interesting because they are conductive and designed to be used in industrial fabric production," says Laura Devendorf, a PhD student at Berkeley and leader on the research. She says the project has been a collaboration with Project Jacquard, a recent project that is part of Google's Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) initiative. It was Project Jacquard that was responsible for developing the core smart thread technology, in an effort to find a way to embed sensing capabilities into clothing. This development was what led Devendorf to explore taking the technology a step further.

"We were interested in seeing how the technology could be used for display in addition to sensing, so we augmented the thread by painting it with thermochromic pigments to turn it into a display platform," she said. "One of the most interesting challenges for us was exploring how something like this would fit into someone's personal fashion sense or style."

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The result was a project aptly titled Ebb, because the color change of the fabric conjured images of "the ebb and flow of the tides, rather than the rapid changes of traditional screen based media." As it turns out, these color-changing fabrics could have a wide range of applications, from a shirt linked to a Tinder profile that changes color when you're near someone who has "swiped right" on your profile -- to possible applications in the realm of fitness tracking and biological sensing.

"I think this technology and the slowness of the color change works best for situations in which you need to represent information in calm ways," Devendorf says. "We're experimenting with attaching the fabric displays to sensors that measure biological signals like skin conductance and heart rate. These metrics are also captured by many fitness trackers as well, so we're focusing on how people use this bio-information in social situations, and how they interpret this data when it's represented on their clothing."

Finding new ways to integrate technology into wearable fabrics certainly isn't new territory. This year's CES expo showcased some impressive wearable innovations, highlighting how the market for wearable technologies continues to expand at a rapid pace. A few months later, an international team of researchers discovered a way to integrate graphene electrodes into fibers--a discovery that could enable a whole new generation of wearables with computing power.

The challenge for all wearable device manufacturers is finding a way to weave technology into clothing as seamlessly as possible, and powering these devices without sacrificing comfort or style.

"The core challenge is power, and developing a good, flexible rechargeable battery that can be used to supply the power needed for color change," Devendorf says. "With that in mind, changing the color of small regions of fabric, like a logo or accent, is pretty near-future. The project and our collaboration with Google ATAP is ongoing and we're currently focusing on developing fully working prototypes that respond to skin conductance, and studying how this data and display can shape social interactions, and also how social interactions can shape the data."

Other collaborators on the project include Noura Howell, Kimiko Ryokai, Joanne Lo, Doris Lee, and Eric Paulos from UC Berkeley--and Nan-Wei Gong, Emre Karagozler, Ivan Poupyrev, and Shiho Fukuhara from Google ATAP

Ebb: Dynamic Textile Displays from Laura Devendorf on Vimeo.

Kristopher Sturgis is a contributor to Qmed.

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[Image courtesy of UC Berkeley]

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