Researchers develop method to store information invisibly on clothes without the use of electronics

Smart fashion accessories with invisible security codes to your office or apartment could soon make keys a thing of the past, say scientists, including one of Indian origin, who have developed fabrics that can secretly store data without any electronics or sensors. Most people 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.

One of the prototype items of clothing with magnetised fabric. Image: Dennis Wise/University of Washington

One of the prototype items of clothing with magnetised fabric. Image: Dennis Wise/University of Washington

However, scientists realised that 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 embedded in most smartphones. "This is a completely electronic-free design, which means you can iron the smart fabric or put it in the washer and dryer," said Shyam Gollakota, associate professor at the University of Washington in the US.
"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. Researchers also created fashion accessories like a tie, belt, necklace and wristband and decoded the data by swiping a smartphone across them. They used conventional sewing machines to embroider fabric with off-the-shelf conductive thread, whose magnetic poles start out in a random order.

By rubbing a magnet against the fabric, the researchers were able to physically align the poles in either a positive or negative direction, which can correspond to the 1s and 0s in digital data.
Like hotel card keys, the strength of the magnetic signal weakens by about 30 per cent 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 160 degrees Celsius.

This is in contrast to many smart garments 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. The team also demonstrated that the magnetized fabric could be used to interact with a smartphone while it is in ones pocket. Researchers developed a glove with conductive fabric sewn into its fingertips, which was used to gesture at the smartphone. Each gesture yields a different magnetic signal that can invoke specific actions like pausing or playing music.


Published Date: Nov 01, 2017 14:00 PM | Updated Date: Nov 01, 2017 14:00 PM