How Smart Fabric Might Turn Your T-shirt Against You.

Researchers at Imperial College London have found a way to embed low-cost sensors into t-shirts and face masks. Produced using a new cotton-based conductive thread, the team expect potential applications to include monitoring exercise, sleep and stress, as well as aiding the diagnosis of liver and kidney disease by measuring levels of gases such as ammonia in the breath.

The ability to non-invasively monitor in real-time the health of athletes will be beneficial in their training. And the same sensors could be used to keep an eye on astronauts and fighter pilots in high-stress situations. Taking it one step further, wearable health trackers could become part of everyday apparel for airline pilots, train drivers, and even long-distance truckers. Being able to remotely spot the early signs of a heart-attack and take action before the driver or pilot becomes incapacitated might prevent an emergency situation.

Measuring stress levels could also be used to prevent burnout and stress-induced errors among surgeons and paramedics, and allow the health of soldiers, firefighters and commercial divers to be monitored in environments where they might be cut-off or hidden from their teammates. The gas sensors in their face masks could also give early warnings of hypoxia or exposure to toxic gas.

These same sensors, if linked to software installed in a vehicle or machine, could be used to measure levels of alcohol or other substances in the operator before allowing the engine to be switched-on. And if that technology becomes affordable, it’s not unreasonable to assume governments and insurance companies might start insisting on its use for all drivers, as a way of cutting down the number of road accidents. You can imagine the scenario: you leave the bar and fumble for your keys, but the ignition won’t work because your t-shirt has alerted the car to the fact you’re under a lot of stress at work and you’ve had four whiskies.

Now imagine that your fridge won’t let you have a beer because it’s breath sensor has detected signs of liver disease; that your diet app won’t let you order pizza because you haven’t burned enough calories today; or that your boss calls you into a meeting because your uniform has reported that you’re suffering from unusual stress levels, and they’re wondering if you still have what it takes to do your job.

If these apps share the data they collect with health insurance companies, you could find your cover withdrawn if you aren’t completing the minimum amounts of exercise required in the small print, or because you’re indulging in proscribed quantities of alcohol or sugar.

If you think the Facebook algorithms are scary now, wait until they can monitor the small physical changes that take place when we’re interested or aroused by something. This would allow them to tailor our menus to fit our tastes, to recommend our perfect sexual partners according to the way we respond to images, and to personalise the advertisements we’re shown to feature products and services that subconsciously excite us. 

Worse still, imagine if this smart clothing became mandatory, and was used to assess heart rate/blood pressure, respiration, and skin conductivity. These are the indicators used by polygraphs to determine if someone is telling the truth. So, anyone licensing the software will be able to ascertain your truthfulness during police questioning, in job interviews, on the witness stand, and even on a first date.

But it’s not all doom-and-gloom. If sensors register the small rise in body temperature that happens after ovulation takes place, they could alert couples struggling to conceive. A sensor registering a cardiac event could automatically alert the emergency services. 

And looking further ahead, we can imagine truly smart fabrics. Spectacles or contact lenses that automatically adjust their focus as your eyesight deteriorates over time. Trouser legs that stiffen to support a broken bone. Scarves that turn into filter masks if exposed to smoke or pollution.

The science fiction author in me is now picturing a future society in which everyone’s clothing senses and communicates their mood through changing colour hues. Red for angry, blue for sad. Maybe pink for embarrassment and light blue for social awkwardness. Just as we’ve come to use emojis to clarify the emotion behind our written messages, so these colours might serve to illuminate our in-person social interactions by broadcasting the subtext behind our words and body language. It sounds fun, but also unnerving. In such a society, it would be difficult to lie. People would know when your mood failed to match your words. Jealousy, resentment and love would be plain for all to see, no matter how much we tried to deny them. And will we ever be ready to live in such a transparent world?


This article first appeared in The Engineer magazine.

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Author: Gareth L Powell

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3 thoughts on “How Smart Fabric Might Turn Your T-shirt Against You.”

  1. Aside from protection from the elements, we wear clothes mostly for the look of them, the image they project and the concealment. What you’re describing effectively means a nakedness that goes beyond mere skin exposure. It’s bad enough that internet sites know what films I want to watch next, what I’m most likely to buy, who I might want to befriend. This sounds hellishly dystopian.

  2. I can see where Ros’ comments are coming from and on some level it is deeply disturbing to imagine such an extreme degree of nakedness. Might I suggest though that, instead of being hellishly dystopian, it could also be liberating and quite utopian? As someone who loathes the idea of AI understanding me better than I know myself, I admittedly gravitate towards Ros’ dystopian view; however I also favor the purity of candid human interactions. Imagine how refreshing it would be to know for certain that the thoughts, behaviors and feelings of everyone you interact with were truly in alignment. I find it easy to extend this vision to all the beautiful things those strikingly honest individuals could create together. The drama in such a world seems like it would only come into play either if intentions were impure or if individuals were unable to respect the differences of others within their societies.

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