The global market for smart fabrics/interactive textiles is expected to reach $720 million by 2008. At this point in time though the wearable, washable computer is just close enough to glimpse some convincing prototypes and work is ongoing to commercialise smart fabrics. By Michael Fitzpatrick.

Ever since Triumph inserted an electronic music chip into one of its bras to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mozart's birth in 1991, apparel makers have been dreaming of the ultimate wired wear - intelligent clothing.

The Holy Grail is the wearable, washable computer; still a long way off but tantalisingly close enough for us to glimpse some convincing prototypes. While others are busy commercialising related smart fabrics.

The global market for smart fabrics/interactive textiles (SFIT), as they are known, is expected to reach $720 million by 2008, according to a study published by analysts at Venture Development Corporation (www.vdc-corp.com).

While near-term demand remains modest in market terms, the longer-term potential for suppliers of SFIT-enabling technologies and SFIT-enabled solutions is significant it says.

According to Chris Rezendes, vice president at VDC: "The SFIT or textronics market represents an interesting investment opportunity right now. Military-industry partnerships focusing on SFIT are operating extremely well."

According to VDC, the SFIT market totals $300 million today but much of this is represented by research. Market demand, assures the analyst, will shortly propel SFIT into a multi-billion dollar industry.

The problem with the SFIT market is the lack of information exchanged among peers. Dozens of SFIT-enabling technologies are under development today, yet few of the OEMs or end users of SFIT-enabled solutions know about these technologies. Despite this barrier to growth, the SFIT market continues to gain traction in a number of market segments says VDC.

Wired army
One of the biggest markets today for SFIT enabled products is the military, which accounts for close to 10 per cent of annual consumption in 2003 ($303 million).

This includes commercially available products and research and development funding for new technologies and applications. The American military in particular is keen to exploit these new technologies and is looking at a completely wired army using conductive fibres, body armour, and artificial muscles, by 2008.

Clothes with integrated electronics are also getting attention from designers and researchers with more peaceful aims.

Leading Japanese champion of the IT-fashion merger is Michie Sone, a lecturer at Tokyo's top fashion school and organiser of an annual smart clothes fashion show. She works in collaboration with electronics group Pioneer Corp to develop fashions that incorporate all manner of electronics from LEDs to optic fibres.

Top of the list has to be her haute couture range which incorporates speakers in the collar and the latest from the labs - flexible, incredibly bright luminescent screens.

"Five years ago, almost nobody in the fashion industry thought about wearable computers. But today, there are a lot of devices that are about to become practicable. They really stimulate our creativity," says Sone.

She and her students have created several wearable computer fashions and have come up with a new name for the styles - media fashion.

Pioneer's heat-proof bendable screens are a key element in her designs where input is achieved through keypads on the sleeves. Data is transferred wireless from remote PCs. The computing power itself does not have to wearable.

The next step is to make the clothes and electronics washable she says.

Limited practicalities
However, some think the practicalities of such clothes are limited.

"For personal consumers, integrating a communication device or computer with clothes is a dead end," says Christian Bartholdsson of Sweden-based Thinking Materials which develops wearable electronic products.

"You change clothes much more often than you change electronic devices. I believe in wearing electronic devices, but they should not be integrated in your clothes. They should be separate units, designed like accessories.

"However, there are certain exceptions where it makes sense. Like winter jackets with integrated controls for audio player or cell phone.

Flexible colour screens integrated into clothing by France Telecom

"I can definitely see wearable communication devices made out of electro textiles. But I believe that textiles made out of 'smart materials' have a much larger market than just things that are wearable. The nano research in the synthesis of textile and polymer materials is very interesting."

Nonetheless, Sone is convinced media fashion will take off in big way and she is not alone. Japan's traditional textile industry centre Gifu is backing her, and hopes the new hybrids will breathe life into a local garment-making industry that is almost on its knees.

For the moment media fashion belongs firmly to the world of expensive one-off haute couture. But there are signs that consumer interest has been sparked and that some of Sone and Pioneer's work may go into mass production some time soon.

A games company has ordered the first of 300 jackets sporting the paper thin bendable luminescent screen, dubbed by its makers Yuki EL.

Operational prototypes
Japan is not alone in its quest for the wearable screen. Researchers at France Telecom have recently developed operational prototypes of flexible colour screens integrated into clothing, opening up new horizons for services that let users display images on the clothes they wear.

For the moment they are confining their efforts to have the screens act as a type of personal message board and to display animated visuals on the wearer.

Designer Elisabeth de Senneville has created an initial range of purpose-built garments where the screen is connected to a mobile phone via a Bluetooth link, so drawings and animations can be sent by MMS to another user with the same equipment.

Thanks to a dedicated embedded software application, the mobile can be used as a remote control to activate the screen's functionalities: adjust the brightness, select the image or text to be displayed, enter text, draw simple animated visuals, download animations from the Internet, etc.

"Clothes are becoming a key interface for giving graphic expression and form to your moods. It's a very personal symbolism, an emotion or state of mind that you can now display publicly and very simply through eye-catching animated graphics and short texts," explains Emeric Mourot, R&D project manager.

The electronic components (including LEDs) have been soldered on a flexible circuit board and then packaged in a fabric layered sandwich. This offers an optimised display rendering while maintaining a very good flexibility and a comfortable yet resistant textile feeling says FT.

From Mozart to personal displayable art and media fashion, smart textiles have come a long way since Triumph's gimmicky bras. Intelligent clothing has just got a lot smarter.

By Michael Fitzpatrick.