Just how far can smart textiles go over of the next 20 years? If a Japanese clothing development company is to be believed, clothes will not only look stylish in future, they will also keep disease at bay.

The company, Okayama-based Haruyama Trading, late last year released a prototype suit it claimed protected the wearer from the H1N1 strain of influenza. It was coated with a layer of titanium dioxide, which, according to the company, reacted to light to break down and kill the virus. It also came in four colours to boot.

Whether such ' intelligent textiles' will present consumer with garments to save us from the viruses of the future remains to be seen. But some of the suggestions for the future of textile technology are only slightly less brow-raising in their ingenuity.

For example, global electronics company Philips continues to work on prototype garments that feature mobile phones embedded into clothing. And among the more improbable designs currently being explored is the Harry Potter-esque concept of an invisibility cloak.

While this has represented something of a Holy Grail for mankind since the dawn of mythology, scientists at Michigan Technological University believe that such an item will eventually be produced.

Elena Semouchkina, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Michigan Tec, has found ways to use magnetic resonance to capture rays of visible light and route them around objects, rendering those objects invisible to the human eye.

From this, Semouchkina has developed a non-metallic cloak that uses identical glass resonators made of chalcogenide glass, a type of dielectric material (one that does not conduct electricity). In computer simulations, the cloak made objects hit by infrared waves - approximately one micron or one-millionth of a metre long - disappear from view.

From there to making a person - or perhaps warship - disappear is a quantum leap, but her invisibility cloak uses meta-materials, artificial materials having properties that do not exist in nature, made of tiny glass resonators arranged in a concentric pattern in the shape of a cylinder.

"Starting from these experiments, we want to move to higher frequencies and smaller wavelengths," says Samouchkina. "The most exciting applications will be at the frequencies of visible light."

Environmental interaction
Meanwhile, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Research Laboratory of Electronics believe it will soon be possible to develop fibres that can interact with their environment to detect and produce sound.

Applications in the future could include clothes that operate sensitive microphones, for capturing speech or monitoring bodily functions, and tiny filaments that could measure blood flow in capillaries or pressure in the brain.

These acoustic fibres incorporate a plastic used in microphones, enhanced by graphite. Technical challenges mean that practical applications of this technology are still some way off: where the fibres are too narrow, their electric fields would generate a tiny lightning bolt, which could destroy the material around it, for instance.

Socks that are embedded with nano-silver to prevent foot odour have been commercially available for more than five years, but scientists at the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics, China, are working on a form of paper that could be incorporated into shoes to keep them smelling fresh.

The technology, reported in the American Chemical Society journal, involves using graphene oxide, a carbon nano-material on which bacteria are unable to grow.

Imitating the natural world
Biomimetics, where textiles imitate properties of the natural world, is also a source of future applications.

The US military has supported research into exploiting and manufacturing the properties of a species of desert beetle, whose body can capture water vapour in the desert night and make it condense into potable liquid.

Meanwhile Germany-based global chemical company BASF is looking to develop more applications for the ' lotus effect,' whereby fabrics can make water bead up. BASF plans to make a new variant of its Mincor textile available next year - in which billions of nano-particles are packed so closely together they keep out specks of dust.

This is the basis of the lotus effect, a dirt repellent technique inspired by the lotus plant. Any foreign bodies - dirt particles, for example - hover on a layer of air separating them from the surface and so can be washed away by rain.

According to Professor George Jeronimidis, director of the Centre for Biomimetics at Reading University, developments over the next decade or so will prove that these new technologies have an end-purpose, and amount to something more substantial than scientists seeking eye-catching headlines.

"I don' t think there is going to be really anything radically new in terms of technology," he said. "But a lot of basic research ideas have now been explored and what's going to happen over the next couple of decades is application and development of those ideas. We' ll see the development of areas of textiles with specific surface properties and in integrating textiles with electronics."

Three areas will drive innovation over the coming years, according to Jeronimidis. "The military will always have an interest but I don' t think they will be as dominant - it will be health care and the mass market that will push smart textiles.

"Health care is key - populations are ageing and textiles will help keep people out of hospital and keep them socially active while they are being monitored."

Researchers from Tufts University, Massachusetts, USA, believe applications could include degradable and flexible electronic displays on textiles for sensors that are biologically and environmentally compatible, and that could be linked to implantable optical systems for diagnosis and treatment.

One area where Jeronimidis believes there is room for new development of raw science is that of "actuation functions" of textiles - where textiles can mimic the actions of muscles.

"You should be able to replace a loss of muscle use with smart textiles, where wires are embedded in the textile. You could theoretically wear a sock that would help muscles contract and relax in response to some kind of stimulus - such as an electrical signature or a certain temperature."

Another development anticipated in the coming years is that biocompatible fibres will be developed that entirely replicate the strength and qualities of silk in artificial fibres. Fundamental discoveries into how silk fibres are made have shown that chemistry, molecular biology and biophysics all play a role in the process.

By Mark Rowe.