The (Not‑Too‑Distant) Future of Kids’ Clothes
Clothing that integrates digital technology isn’t new — we’ve been seeing it on professional athletic pitches and at Olympic competitions for years. But what is new is how accessible these smart clothes are now, and how everything from medicine to aeronautical engineering to digital tech is changing what we know as kids’ clothes.
Baby clothes that can treat birth complications
Baby clothes with sensors that track vital signs have been around for a while — but baby clothes that can treat common birth complications? That’s new.
What if you could treat your baby’s jaundice at home, instead of leaving them at the hospital to lie alone, naked, and with their eyes covered for protection in the incubators? That’s the question researchers at Empa, a Swiss materials science and technology institute, have asked and now answered, developing an illuminated material that can be made into baby clothes — pajamas, rompers or sleep sacks — that irradiate the toxic decomposition products of the blood pigment hemoglobin deposited in the skin of babies with jaundice.
To do this, the team created textiles with optically conductive fibers woven into them. Battery-operated LEDs serve as a light source for the light-conducting threads, which are woven with conventional thread into a satin material that distributes the light supply evenly throughout the fabric, according to the team’s report in trade journal Biomedical Optics Express. The material radiates blue light inward, eliminating the need for eye masks to protect a baby’s sensitive eyes.
“The photonic textiles are washable and tolerated well by the skin,” said Maike Quandt, lead author of the team’s report, adding that the the illuminated fabrics are suitable for everyday wear. “The satin fabric is smooth and matches the wearing comfort of a typical baby onesie.”
Clothes that grow with kids
An aeronautical engineer, frustrated by the need to continuously buy new kids’ clothes for his niece and nephew, asked a different question: What if kids’ clothes could grow, too — expand as kids get taller? It led 24-year-old Ryan Yasin to design an award-winning, origami-inspired children’s clothing line. The clothing is made from a lightweight, machine-washable and recyclable fabric that has been intricately pleated to expand and accommodate growth from three months to three years.
His clothing “works by employing the so-called negative Poisson’s ratio, which Yasin studied while at London’s Imperial College,” according to The Guardian.
“When stretched, materials that have this ratio – known as auxetics – become thicker and can expand in two directions at the same time. … Yasin has captured auxetic properties in Petit Pli through the use of permanent pleating. The pleats move in both directions, either folding together or expanding, and allowing the garment to move with the child. Heat treatment fixes these properties permanently in place, even through the wash cycle; the garments are designed to be long-lasting and can fold down small enough to tuck in your pocket.”
The clothes have a peculiar aesthetic somewhere between experimental fashion and upcycled crafting, but they also evoke a sense of simplicity, of the rough-and-tumble, un-self-consciousness of kids in a way that might be just what the world — and parents’ pocketbooks — need right now.
Clothes that could track lost kids
A new type of smart fabric developed at the University of Washington could pave the way for clothes that store invisible passcodes and open the door to an apartment, office or school, without needing any on-board electronics or sensors.
“This is a completely electronic-free design, which means you can iron the smart fabric or put it in the washer and dryer,” said senior author Shyam Gollakota, computer science professor at the University of Washington. “You can think of the fabric as a hard disk — you’re actually doing this data storage on the clothes you’re wearing.”
Most smart clothes today combine conductive thread — embroidery thread that can carry an electrical current — with other types of electronics to create outfits, stuffed animals or accessories that light up or communicate. But Gollakota’s team realized this off-the-shelf conductive thread also has magnetic properties that can be manipulated to store either digital data or visual information like letters or numbers. This data can be read by a magnetometer, an inexpensive instrument that measures the direction and strength of magnetic fields and is already embedded in most smartphones.
“We are using something that already exists on a smartphone and uses almost no power, so the cost of reading this type of data is negligible,” said Gollakota. In one example, they stored the passcode to an electronic door lock on a patch of conductive fabric sewn to a shirt cuff. They unlocked the door by waving the cuff in front of an array of magnetometers.
Like hotel card keys, the strength of the magnetic signal weakens by about 30 percent over the course of a week, though the fabric can be re-magnetized and re-programmed multiple times. In other stress tests, the fabric patch retained its data even after machine washing, drying and ironing at temperatures of up to 320 degrees Fahrenheit.
This is in contrast to many smart clothes today that still require on-board electronics or sensors to work. That can be problematic if you get caught in the rain or forget to detach those electronics before throwing them in the washing machine — a potential barrier to widespread adoption of other wearable technology designs.
This kind of smart fabric paves the way for an ease of parental monitoring never before seen, and there’s a lot to be excited about. Who wouldn’t love to replace their nanny cam with a smart onesie, track a lost kid’s whereabouts by his smart clothes, or to simply shrug your own shoulders in a smart jacket, and be able to review a teen’s Internet history.
But what makes life easier can also make life harder in new and different ways: These smart clothes speed up the need for discussion and regulation. An Internet of Clothes wouldn’t just put kids at risk of hacking — it puts parents at risk of becoming the hackers.