This futuristic fabric can redefine reusable technology

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For about a century and a half, from the mid-19th century to the end of the 20th century, the clothing industry was New York’s largest manufacturing industry. New York made more clothing than anywhere else in the world, and there were more New Yorkers working there than in any other profession.

Jump forward to the present day and 10 miles from the clothing area, in an old Navy Yard building in Brooklyn – now a trendy startup center with potted plants, breakout rooms and colorful lounge chairs – a company called Nextiles trying to turbocharg the next stage of fabric and sewing innovation. And while clothes made in the clothing area promised to make their owners look smart, Nextiles cuts the arbitrator off using impressive, cutting-edge technology that makes clothes smart.

“Our materials are basically based on fabrics,” George Sun, CEO and founder of Nextiles, told Digital Trends. “We still use polyester, we still use nylon, we can still use cotton and leather, but we make them leading. When things are conductive, of course, they conduct electricity – and with electricity, you’re in the reach of electrical engineering and hardware, right? When electrons are moving and you are in that state, you can take advantage of all these unique principles: resistance, capacitance, inductors, transistors, and so on. We tend to say that we are creating a semiconducting material in the form of a fabric. “

Nextiles was founded in 2018. Supported by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), its patented – and yes, machine-washable – smart fabric with advanced sensor technology is designed to capture biometric and biomechanical data streamed via Bluetooth in real time. The fabrics it manufactures are coated with a conductive material, such as stainless steel, that allows them to collect and transmit information.

Nextiles

Weaving these individual fibers into Sun’s so-called “conductive wire highway system” opens up new possibilities for granular data collection in the human body. Right now, it’s aimed at athletes, but one day it can help make all of our clothes smarter. Have you ever wanted your spandex to talk to you? It’s your lucky day.

People-centered technology

Wearable is a broad category in computing. It refers to computer technology that is portable and that is with us wherever we go, the back of a room-sized CPU or desktop computer of the past. In the loosest sense, a smartphone can be considered wearable (especially when attached to a runner’s arm). The earbuds are certainly wearable or, as is sometimes called, “audible. “A smart watch is wearable. So possibly are smart implants. Smart glasses also count.

Wearable accessories must be a technology attached to the body that still does not constantly warn us of its presence as a technology.

Each of these works differently and requires or demands very different interfaces and experiences to realize its true potential. What unites them – apart from the smaller size – is how they fit into which user experience guru Don Norman would call people-centered technology. This is a technology that discreetly fades into the background, gathers information, and provides support without having to focus specifically on the technology itself.

Nextiles

Wearable accessories must be a technology attached to the body that still does not constantly warn us of its presence as a technology. Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline, two scientists who coined the word “cyborg” in 1960, described their perception of the combination of man and machine, it is “an exogenously extended organizational complex that functions as a unified homeostatic system unconsciously“(emphasis added).

The idea of ​​smart materials began to gain momentum in the 1960s with everything from memory materials and polymer gels to photochromic lenses that cause glasses to darken in sunlight. All of these have materials that are capable of sensing and adapting to the stimuli of the environment in some way, even if they do not behave in the active way that we would attribute to it with true intelligence.

Different type of wearable

However, it was not until the late 20th century that scientists began to seriously study the embedding of electronics in fabrics and other clothing to gain the next generation’s cognitive potential. Today, the market for consumable parts for connected equipment is relatively mature. By one recent reportthe global shipment of smart wearables in 2020 was 266.3 million units, roughly equivalent to the entire population of Indonesia.

Nextiles

But Sun doesn’t want to compare smart clothes to current wearable clothes. “[People look at today’s smart watches and] they have such a frame of reference, ”he said. “They always ask, like,‘ Oh, can it count calories? Can it measure my sweating? ‘And the answer is that it can do much more. We try to measure biomechanical motion; we can actually measure angles, torque, elongation. “

The idea that every part of the human body can be captured in motion may need to change. Consider sportswear that can tell you if you’re throwing the pitch right or lifting the weight properly, or a gym shirt that will let you know if it needs to be strained more at a certain point, indicating successful muscle growth. By inserting sensors into the back of the shirt like vertebrae, Sun said it is possible to measure the curvature of the wearer’s spine. By placing them on the chest, it may be possible to measure breathing. Such dressers promise to be game changers in preventing injury and improving technology.

nextiles API and data analytics
Nextiles

“We can measure stretching, for example; we can measure things like bending; we can measure things like pressure, ”he said. “And with that … we can actually create more high-level calculations. If you measure distances and distance as a function of time or distance as a function of radians, you get, for example, angular velocity, torque, and strain. They are the units that are most interesting to our customers.”

Soft release

Sun became interested in the field of smart materials while working at the MIT research laboratory, which collaborated with sportswear company Puma to make high-tech shoes. She said she initially thought this technique would be most beneficial for physiotherapists (her sister is one) but quickly became convinced that this technique was immediately suitable for the athletics market.

Nextiles ’first products include an arm and knee sleeve to ensure mechanical changes from different parts of the body. Sun aptly describes their summer deployment as a “soft trigger.” “We are launching several of our beta products for some of these high-end athletes,” he said.

He currently pointed out that there are only 10 company products in alpha testing that are “floating in the world right now,” but later this year he hopes this figure is “several hundred thousand.”

Nextiles

Meanwhile, Nextiles continues to look for “new forms of identification,” including ECG, EEG, and EMG, among others. (It’s heart rate, brain function, and muscle health.) In the long term, he is considering the possibility of biometric data related to health monitoring that is currently collected with smartwatches and other devices, but expanded to cover the entire body. In addition to well-being, wearable smart fabrics can also be used to interact with the world around us, leading to a more seamless interaction with our environment.

Nextiles is also not content to stay in the dressing room. It makes smart fabrics, and while fabrics are synonymous with clothing, they are not limited to it. As Sun said, “Sewing is really everywhere. It’s in the carpets, in your vehicles, inside [airplanes]. For anyone who needs a soft surface, you have fabrics. “

Imagine, he suggested, a sheet that collects information about sleeping or carpets that collect information about how material changes over time as people walk over it. Part of this may involve passive data collection, which allows manufacturers to collect data on actual usage, just as Kindle-era book publishers can see how an e-book is read (or not read) once a customer has purchased it. More interestingly, it may be related to some form of activity, such as a bed that hardens or softens based on your sleep patterns.

Congestion

Nextiles is not the only company working on smart wearable products. Researchers working in universities have created fascinating prototypes, such as a fabric that can turn clothes into a portable display, and various efforts to make heating and cooling materials that could ensure people are kept at optimal temperatures anywhere. Then there are startups like Montreal-based Hexoskin, which has developed intelligent garments with sensors to collect “continuous heart, lung, activity and sleep data”, and Slingshotwhich makes a beep-sized device Some NBA teams use it to measure movement and physical exertion.

Hexoskin

Technical giants like Apple are patents in this area, although they have not yet reported or posted anything. The big whale in this ocean seems to be Google, which reported it Project Jacquard at the 2015 Google I / O Conference. Project Jacquard is named after the innovative punch-card-controlled Jacquard looms from 1801, and is led by search giant Advanced Technology and Projects, a group dedicated to the development of touch-sensitive fabric.

The associated deal with Levi Strauss & Co resulted in a smart jacket that was long for sci-fi promises but short for immediate benefit. Other Project Jacquard works (backpack! Shoe sensor!) Have also been published, although nothing has left in a big way so far.

What Google’s work on this domain highlights is how there are still early days for smart clothing. Project Jacquard strives for low-hanging fruit: “Skip the song by swiping the sleeve,” it states on its website. “Tap the shoulder strap to take a picture. Remind you of the phone you left by flashing a light or a haptic buzz in your cuff. “These are fun tricks, but they really aren’t changeable. They are, as the saying goes, evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

The beginning of a long journey

The question is whether Nextiles will be able to survive but thrive in the face of growing interest in this area. As exciting a path as this undoubtedly is, it also feels like it’s the beginning of a long journey.

“We have enough firepower to get us next year, and we were constantly growing our team,” Sun said. “We already have paying customers for generating revenue. It supports most of our R&D activities. In addition, we are applying for grants. We know that there is application potential in healthcare and medicine, so for example [National Science Foundation] or similar agencies, we also apply for grants. There are many ways in which we either make money or make money. “

First, focusing on the sports market is a sensible move. Not only do effective athletes have more use of data, but presumably they spend more to get it, but there are also a few better ways to sell a new product to the public than being used by top figures in the sports world. .

If Nextiles is able to achieve its goals, it can only have the effects of a very promising business in its hands. And who knows? Then it could banish our image forever Star Trek-type dinners or nightmares Darth Vader and RoboCop-style armor shirts in high-end science fiction costumes.

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