One of the aims of [email protected], a research group led by Material Sciences and Engineering Professor Yoel Fink at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is to instill computational properties into the making of fibers and fabrics. Its invention “smart clothing” are garments that are able to keep track of the wearer’s vital signs such as body temperature and heart rate.

The smart fabric blueprint

Described in a blueprint that was recently published in Matter, the research group underlined their visions for future fabric computers. Mainly, they are building towards a “Moore’s law” for fibers. Originally refers to the doubling of processing powers of computers once every two years. Over here, it’s the capabilities of a single strand of fiber that can progress rapidly over time.

To achieve that, fibers will no longer be made from one kind of substance, it may also encompass conductors, semiconductors and insulators that are “precisely arranged within a single fiber cross-section” to become device that have multiple functions. Ideally, it’s a new genre of fast-evolving material that can feel, communicate, store and process information and also able to change colors and emit energy.

Since these smart fabrics are covering one’s body over a long period of time, they are exposed to an exponential amount of acoustic, optical, biological, biochemical, electrical signals. In a normal fabric, these details will be washed away unknowingly but over here, they will be captured to form a massive and meaningful dataset. Artificial Intelligence (AI) driven tools will then by deployed to uncover patterns or insights about one’ health.

At the same time, new correlations can be formed between certain physiological parameters detected from the fabrics and health. These analyses can be rejuvenated back to the smart fabric, so that it’s able to notify the wearer’s primary care provider when one of his or her health markers are off the trajectory or better still, drugs can be quickly delivered to the wearer before the onset of a particular medical episode.

The meaning of smart fabrics in a pandemic

Ultimately, the research team hopes that the smart fabric can become “a platform for services”, whereby all the details and inferences derived from the smart fabric can be turned into actionable information. That’s why they thought the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic may be a suitable opportunity to reveal the smart fabrics blueprint as it allows health screenings of large populations in real-time.

Presently, testing is symptom-driven and a person may already be infectious before he or she start to feel unwell. There is no predictive, forward looking and continuous indicator that the authorities can act on. If smart fabric can supply the healthcare systems with so much information within the designated time, the trajectory of the pandemic could probably be different from the one we are experiencing right now.

As Gabriel Loke, current MIT PhD student and member of the research team said, “No human-made objects are more ubiquitous or exposed to more vital data than the clothes we all wear.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could somehow teach our fabrics to sense, store, analyze, extract, and communicate this potentially useful information?”

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Author Bio

Hazel Tang A science writer with data background and an interest in the current affair, culture, and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.