What Are Electronic Textiles?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Electronic textiles integrate circuits into fabrics that can be comfortably worn or used to make products like sacs and equipment cases. They have a range of applications, from enabling communication with circuits built into garments to tracking soldiers in the field during operations. Research into this area of textile development takes place at private companies, government agencies, and academic institutions. It integrates aspects of computer, electrical, and textile engineering.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Designers of electronic textiles produce fabrics with circuits and wiring integrated into their design to create a wearable computer. They may be hidden or visible, depending on the style and the planned uses of the product. Wearers can interact directly with their garments and may be able to use electronic textiles to communicate with other devices, including wearable computers in use by the people around them.

In the fashion industry, such garments can change color and pattern and react to the environment around them. The same traits used for novelty in fashion settings can have other applications, like the ability to camouflage people with dynamically changing garment designs. For people like hunters and members of the military who want to be able to blend perfectly into their environment, electronic textiles offer some distinct advantages.

Sensors can be embedded to provide feedback on the wearer or the environment. Garments worn by athletes may measure heart rate, sweat, muscle activity, and other factors. Sensors can also offer information about ambient light levels, temperature, and other environmental conditions. People can wear electronic textiles with embedded video and audio recording, for example, and may feed the data to a base station for monitoring purposes.

Communications features can be built into electronic textiles which may place calls, send texts, or directly communicate with other garments in the vicinity. The same features can provide functionality for gaming, where the garments become the game controls. Haptic feedback devices that vibrate and provide other sensations can be built into electronic textiles to create an immersive experience for gamers. They might, for example, be able to feel objects they manipulate in the game, or could experience a tingling or vibration when their characters are injured or killed.

Development in these area involves the creation of strong, flexible fibers that can carry signals readily and at high speed while being worn. Researchers also consider potential applications and the best way to accomplish them. Both recreation and serious applications can be considerations for electronic textile designers, and many applications cross the streams; gaming suits, for example, can be used in job training.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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