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Typing on Your T-Shirt: This Fiber Breakthrough Could Advance Smart Apparel

A new fiber technology could power innovative applications that integrate a keyboard right into a shirt or enable garments to monitor vital signs such as breathing and heart rate.

A research team at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne’s (EPFL) Laboratory of Photonic Materials and Fiber Devices developed a highly elastic, high-performance smart thread that can act as a sensor. The study published in Advanced Materials details how the smart thread is made from elastomers—natural or synthetic polyesters featuring elastic capabilities, such as rubber—but achieves its unique properties when elements like electrodes are added in.

Researchers created highly sensitive sensors by incorporating the electrodes at “strategic locations” along the fiber. In a YouTube video, EPFL’s Fabien Sorin explains how the sensor capabilities could lead to keyboards built directly into textiles such as t-shirts, enabling the wearer to send a text by typing on her sleeve, for example.

As robotics infiltrates a growing number of industries, there’s increasing demand for smarter, sensing bots. The researchers seen an application for the smart thread to act as an “artificial nerve” in a robotic hand. This could help robots intelligently handle and distinguish between myriad objects.

Able to detect the slightest changes in pressure and strain, the smart thread could also foster advancements in safer medical implants as well as garments that monitor the wearer’s vital signs. Though the first wave of wearable tech focused on gadgets like Fitbits and smartwatches, smart apparel designed with intelligently integrated and wearer-friendly tech will power the future of fashion tech.

The video also showcased the fiber’s extreme stretchiness. Textiles created with the smart thread can recover up to nearly 500 percent deformation, meaning they can return to their original shape after being stretched and pulled.

The researchers said their production methodology can quickly create several hundred meters of the fiber, showing the breakthough’s scalability.