Whether wearable tech is the wave of the future or a passing fad, tech-laden clothing keeps coming down the runway. Although it can be tough to separate gimmick from game-changer, this fashion show has a high-tech core that’s actually functional.
Pauline van Dongen
"When you wear solar cells on your body you can be an energy source," Dutch fashion designer Pauline van Dongen said in describing the inspiration for a prototype coat and dress she made in collaboration with project leader Christiaan Holland, solar panel specialist Gertjan Jongerden and students at the University of Applied Sciences in Nijmegen. Wool and leather garments contain enough solar cells to help charge a cellphone.
Primitive London / Adam Harvey
New York-based artist Adam Harvey created a provocative line of clothing intended to foil ubiquitous surveillance. His anti-drone scarf, along with an anti-drone hoodie, was made from specialized materials the designer indicated could thwart thermal imaging used widely by unmanned aerial vehicles.
Toronto-based suit maker Garrison Bespoke went the extra mile to keep its jet-setting clients safe in dangerous places. The company incorporated patented lightweight and flexible armor material right into the suit jacket. During tests, the carbon nanotube fabric stopped 9 mm bullets and a hunting knife.
Wallflowers take note: Canadian fashion designer Ying Gao incorporated an eye-tracking system into two of her dresses so they transform when a fixed gaze is detected. Tiny motors in the dress activate lights inside and the fabric begins moving around.
Engineer Moritz Waldemeyer may be more well known for helping fashion designers put lasers on jackets and video displays on bikinis, but his collaboration with Cypriot fashion designer Hussein Chalayan produced robotic dresses. Servo-driven motors, pulleys and wires fed through hollow tubes sewn into the dresses allowed them to automatically change styles completely in minutes.
Design lab Sensoree's GER Mood Sweater works like a mood ring, only better -- and with more coverage. Sensors pick up "excitement levels" that change the colored LEDs inside accordingly. Different colors correspond with certain types of emotions although blue means tranquil, not necessarily down.
When consulting a smartphone for directions feels too gauche, there's the Navigate Jacket from New York-based tech company Wearable Experiments. The jacket contains connects to a smartphone app and subtly nudges the wearer to his or her destination through haptic feedback and lights in the sleeve that indicate how far until the next turn.
Mark Vorreuter / Cornell University
A team from Fiber Science and Apparel Design at Cornell University created workout clothes with fabric that loses color as the wearer's temperature rises. This thermochromic pigment-based approach to activewear could prevent athletes from over-heating.
EBbra, Flickr Creative Commons
Some bras already have wires so it's easy to see why designers would add on, allowing them to do things like send a tweet when one comes off or send out shocks to deter would-be rapists. Elena Bodnar went another direction, creating an Emergency Bra that contains a radiation sensor and can transform quickly into two face masks.
The New York-based company Tactile Navigation Tools is developing a hands-free wearable device that uses sensors to detect obstacles and can alert the wearer to them with vibrations. Known as Eyeronman, the device could aid not only the blind, but also firefighters, soldiers and others, its developers say.
About 285 million people worldwide are visually impaired, according to the World Health Organization. Yet in developed countries, most blind people still navigate using the standard white cane, which was invented in 1921. [Bionic Humans: Top 10 Technologies]
When soldiers return from war, "the ones with limb loss are getting expensive devices, but the ones with vision loss — we're giving them a stick," said Dr. JR Rizzo, a rehabilitation doctor at NYU Langone Medical Center and the company's founder and chief medical adviser. "It's a little ridiculous," he said.
When Rizzo was 15 years old, he was diagnosed with choroideremia, a rare retinal degenerative disease that causes progressive vision loss, and he is now legally blind. He thinks blind people should have more advanced sensory prostheses.
"I don't care what the vision loss is from," Rizzo told Live Science. The goal is to increase mobility and get people integrated back into society, he said.
Navigation by Vibration
Eyeronman consists of a vest outfitted with sensors and emitters for lidar, a laser-based system used in driverless cars; ultrasound, which is used by bats and other animals for echolocation; and infrared, a type of electromagnetic radiation used by pit vipers to detect prey by sensing body heat.
The system converts input from these sensors into vibrations in a T-shirt made from electro-active polymers. For example, an obstacle on the wearer's lower left would cause the lower-left part of the shirt to vibrate. The system is designed to provide 360-degree obstacle detection, its developers say.
About 285 million people worldwide are visually impaired.Thinkstock
Studies show that visually impaired people use parts of the brain that are normally used for vision to process auditory input, which suggests that the brain is inherently plastic -- it continually adapts and forms new neural connections. The Eyeronman users would make use of this plasticity to train themselves to use the device.
Just as the deaf-blind author and political activist Helen Keller was able to understand the concept of water by feeling it while having it spelled on her hand, a blind person could walk past a table and feel it by vibration, Rizzo said.
The patent-pending Eyeronman system could also be used by soldiers in combat, police or firefighters, who may have limited vision at night or due to smoke from fires or explosions, according to the company's website.
Some people have created similar devices, Rizzo said, but no one has created a platform that detects the shape of objects and displays them on the body like his team's invention does.
Right now, the system is still in the prototype phase. The researchers have developed a version that displays the sensor input to the shirt by lighting up LEDs, instead of producing vibration, but the principle is the same, Rizzo said.
Not all of the sensors will work ideally in all environments, so the researchers need to determine which ones work best and figure out how they can be made inexpensively, he said.
"There are lots of challenges, but I don't think any are to the point where we can't get on top of them," Rizzo said.
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