Imagine a world where a touchpad hidden inside a button or zipper on your coat can communicate wirelessly with your smartphone to remotely start your car. Sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? And it’s not as futuristic as you might think.
Speaking at a Texworld USA seminar Tuesday titled, “Wiring Textiles,” Louise Brooks, founder and manager of the wearable electronics systems department at manufacturing company Vorbeck Materials, discussed how graphene—a carbon-based material that’s 100 times more conductive than silicon—could be used to create flexible antennas that can be incorporated into apparel or accessories.
For instance, adding one to a backpack to boost a cell phone’s LTE signal when the user is miles from a tower—an innovation that Vorbeck is currently developing for the military but plans to make available commercially next spring.
“It’s a great way to break away from having a cellphone in front of your face,” Brooks said, adding, “We’re hoping to develop flexible technology that will take people away from devices that bog them down.”
Colin Touhey is attempting something similar at Pvilion, the New York-based solar technology and development firm he co-founded in 2011.
“What we’re trying to do is move it away from just being cool to being super useful,” the chief executive explained, noting that he wants to bridge the gap between manufacturing textiles and electronics. “We want to help people in the garment world become a little higher tech and people in the technology world be more patient,” he quipped.
Since its inception, Pvilion has mostly created eco-friendly architectural structures and tents, integrating advanced solar technology with flexible stainless steel sheets. Its first foray into consumer products came last fall when Tommy Hilfiger approached the company to produce a pair of limited-edition jackets—one style each for men and women—embedded with flexible, removable solar panels that provided backup power for mobile devices.
Now Pvilion is interested in digging a little deeper. “What we really don’t want is to have someone come to us with a T-shirt and say, ‘Let’s glue some solar panels on that.’ That’s been done. It can be interesting and crazy but what we’re fundamentally interested in is a lower cost solution that comes from higher volume production,” Touhey said. “We’re trying to educate designers and manufacturers and brands on how they can do this.”