(Inside Science) -- Back when smartphones first came out, people were blown away by the technology -- touch screens, voice commands and even a camera! But now mobile phones are so “last year” and don’t seem as special. So, what’s the next new high-tech trend? Scientists are on the cutting edge of developing smart fabrics in clothes and backpacks that can actually send messages, tune in sound signals and change colors on command.
For thousands of years, the four great fibers in the fabric industry were linen, wool, cotton and silk -- all created from natural and abundant sources. But these fabrics had their problems -- cotton and linens wrinkle, silk requires delicate handling, and wool shrinks and can be itchy. But according to Yoel Fink at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, we haven’t seen any big, inspiring innovations in fabrics other than some changes in design and color.
“They’ve been around for thousands of years at least, but haven’t changed much over the course of history, and the question I started asking myself, when, you know, starting research in this area … is why?” said Fink.
Fink’s curiosity led to the development of a backpack, but it’s no ordinary backpack. Woven into the backpack’s fabric are programmable fibers. The end result from the technology is a fabric that is one of a kind -- the backpack’s fabrics have threads woven and arranged in a unique pattern, and that distinct style of stitching allows each backpack to be identified by a smartphone app called Looks.”
“What we’re introducing is a way to connect, have a smartphone or an app connect to a fabric. So, you point the app at a, at the fabric and the wearer of the fabric then projects out information that they’re interested in. It allows you to express things that are beyond what people can see about you,” said Fink.
Once the app is open and a smartphone camera is pointed at the backpack, unique content associated with the backpack will launch. Users can share a song, a music video, a Facebook page or internet link with anyone nearby. The backpack has no wires or batteries, but users can still connect with the digital world.
Sharing your interests with the world through a backpack may seem strange at first. But think about it -- it’s something most of us do every day through social media.
“You come out of your apartment in the morning and you want to share a song with the world, you’ve just read an article in a newspaper and you want to share it, you have a passion, you have an interest in things, and you want people to know about those interests -- you want to share them with the world,” said Fink.
But sharing activities and songs isn’t its only unique trait. It has the potential for a whole host of networking opportunities.
“We definitely see a role for this in colleges, in high schools, in conferences, in the work place and in an enterprise setting. And what this allows you to do is to share information about yourself, exchange business cards, send people to your booth, get them updated on your latest project and allows you to do it very effectively with larger groups of people,” said Fink.
Imagine the backpack sends you an email when it's lost. A misplaced backpack could be scanned through the app to contact the owner.
“I was a very absentminded kid. And tend to lose things often. And the thing that I think got my mom most frustrated with me was the fact that I was losing my school bag, or lunch bag, every -- on a fairly regular basis. So, once you lose it or you misplace it, you program your app to basically tell whoever looks at it that it’s lost and you know, you’ll get it returned pretty quickly,” said Fink.
The backpacks could be widely available in the next year. U.S. manufacturing is important to Fink, who sees tremendous growth in innovation in the country.
“I’d really like to see a vibrant industry, manufacturing industry, um, continue and flourish in this country. I’d like to see young people being attracted to making and innovating in this area that is so, you know, ancient and cultural, and really to create a change in the world in a positive way,” concluded Fink.