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Super clothes

Choosing what to wear in the morning is about to become even harder. Should one choose the bullet-proof blouse, the colour-changing cardigan, or the self-heating sari?

Clothing is about to be revolutionized by a slough of new technologies.

Imagine, for example, fabric that can change pattern or colour on demand. International Fashion Machines, a small company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has developed Electric Plaid, which can do just that.

Currently on display as part of the National Design Triennial at New York’s Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, Electric Plaid looks like a multicoloured, hand-woven textile–but a circuit board attached to the back can be programmed to send current through conductive fibers woven into the textile, heating them up. Temperature-sensitive inks used in the textile change colour as a result, altering the wall-hanging’s pattern.

Another way to create a colour-changing fabric has been developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. By combining thin layers of a plastic and glass, they’ve produced a new fiber that reflects all the light that hits it, from any direction. Cloth made from the fiber normally has the rainbow sheen of an oil slick on a rain puddle, but altering the thickness of the fibers, which could be accomplished by sending current through them, would change the wavelength of light they reflect, and thus the colour.

Colour-changing clothing would have obvious camouflage benefits for the military, but the ultimate camouflage would be an invisibility cloak–and you don’t have to be Harry Potter to have one any more. Last spring Susumu Tachi, a university professor at the University of Tokyo, demonstrated one. His shiny raincoat was really a kind of movie screen, which showed the image from a video camera on his back–an image of what the viewer would see if he wasn’t standing there.

Tachi’s invisibility cloak was crude, but it demonstrated that something very much like invisibility is technically possible. In the current issue of Wired Magazine, Wil McCarthy calculates what would be required to make a really effective invisibility cloak: it would have to have six stereoscopic camera pairs built into it, be covered with 11.6 million “hyperpixels,” each consisting of a very bright 180 X 180 LED array behind a hemispherical lens, and be controlled by a computer running at 10 billion or more gigahertz while drawing little enough power that the power source can be built into the cloak…in other words, don’t hold your breath. Something more like Tachi’s device, however, could still be useful for stationary objects.

If you can’t get an invisibility cloak, you can at least get a bullet-proof shirt–if you can afford it. A research team at the NanoTech Institute at the University of Texas in Dallas has come up with the toughest lightweight fiber ever developed–four times tougher than spider silk, and 17 times tougher than Kevlar, which is what current bullet-proof vests are made out of.

The secret is carbon nanotubes, tiny rolled-up sheets of carbon atoms found naturally in soot. The research team combined the nanotubes with water and a plastic to form a gel, which the researchers then spun into long, continuous fibers, easy to weave and sew. Unfortunately, carbon nanotubes currently cost $15,000 U.S. an ounce.

More readily available soon may be coats that put out extra heat–and even a little light. Lucy Dunne, a Cornell Unversity graduate student, has developed just such a jacket. Her “smart jacket” automatically heats up (by sending current through conductive fibers in the upper back) when sensors tell it it’s getting chilly, and automatically lights up (by sending current through electro-luminescent wires around the neck and bottom of the jacket) when sensors tell it it’s getting dark. The left wrist cuff contains a pulse-rate monitor, for joggers and hypochondriacs.

That kind of practical jacket is likely to be on the market soon. Other “super-clothes” have already made it: socks that prevent smelly feet by inhibiting bacteria growth; snow suits embedded with GPS systems, heating systems and emergency alarms; clothing that can wick away liquid spills without staining; even aromatherapy business suits.

All new technologies have unintended side-effects, though. I foresee a huge increase in tardiness as people who can barely make it to work on time now are overwhelmed by their new clothing choices.

Fortunately, one new product is a shirt with an integrated cell phone. You’ll be able to use it to phone your boss and tell him you’ll be late.

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