Innovation in flexible computing components is arriving in wave after wave of late. In June, a report detailed a 32-bit ARM microprocessor that could bend, and this month, we learned that Stanford researchers demonstrated working bendable RAM. When discussing the pliable CPU news on our podcast, I suggested that this could help create smaller sensors in various more efficient shapes for the IoT. But in thinking more about the potential, I think there’s a larger yet untapped market for these technologies: Smart clothing.
To be sure, there have been many smart clothing products over the past handful of years.
Back in 2014, I tested a biometric vest that was able to track my heart and breathing rates. And it worked as advertised, provided I had the bulky electronics pack attached to it.
Google’s Project Jacquard, which creates smart fabrics and smart tags for clothing, has partnered with Levi’s for the past four years, debuting a connected jean-jacket in 2017. Using touch controls in the fabric, you could control music playback from the cuff or be alerted of notifications or messages through a built-in light. Reviewers were less than impressed and the smarts of the jacket required a nearby connected phone.
There are plenty of other examples of smart fabric efforts and they all share a common theme: They’re limited by computing components that can’t easily be integrated into clothing.
Now, with the first promising research on flexible computing products, that limitation could be eliminated. Washing smart clothes is still an open challenge although water-resistant micro coatings are already used on internal phone components to eliminate water damage.
Consider athletic gear embedded bendable processors and memory, for example. You wouldn’t need a smart watch, nor your smart phone, to capture and process biometric data. Instead, you just grab your latest smart shirt or shorts and go. A basic application, sensors, and maybe some smart threading to transfer data from the sensors to the CPU will track your calories, heart rate, and breathing.
Take things a step further though. If flexible computing and memory become cost-effective components, they could filter down into very specific biometric tracking applications.
Maybe you’re a runner with knee pain and you’re using some type of stretchable wrap to support your knee. A bendable microprocessor, a few small sensors, and memory could measure and record the amount of knee torsion experienced during your run. That information can be extremely helpful to address your knee issue by suggesting different shoes to improve your running form. All of the captured data will need storage space for long-term trends and analysis: A perfect application for that bendable memory.
Thanks to the latest technologies, your hat can measure and store your body temperature every second. An algorithm running on the flexible processor determines that based on ambient weather conditions and your body temp, the risk of heatstroke is starting to rise.
You could press on, not being aware of this situation, but your smart hat alerts you of the potential risk, allowing you to back down before it’s too late.
Likewise, smart gloves with flexible computing technology and small sensors can not only measure the cold winter temperatures around you but the temperature of your hands, as well. The gloves can use this data and predict potential frostbite or other complications due to extreme conditions, suggesting it’s time to scurry inside and avoid such problems.
Some applications will need a way to offload or sync data from the smart clothes either to a mobile device or the cloud as well. So we’ll need low-powered wireless radio technologies that aren’t bulky too. But we’ve already heard about a number of promising options that would nicely complement the computing advances.
Stacey has featured Atmosic in the past, which makes Bluetooth chips that harvest their power from RF waves, making them potentially battery-free. And some companies harness the energy of waves to power smart buoys: Why can’t future smart clothing create small bits of power out of our own kinetic energy using a similar concept? Small, flexible CPUs don’t consume gobs of electricity to work: That pliable ARM microprocessor runs on just 21 milliwatts of electricity.
These smart clothing concepts and others will all take time off course. I’m not suggesting that we’ll see smart clothes that are actually useful at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in January. Probably not at 2022 or 2023 CES events either. However, I can envision some smart clothing options that I’d actually want to wear because they won’t require bulky chipsets, large memory stores, or blocky batteries.
Updated on 9/17/2021 to correct the link to Stanford’s flexible memory research.