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Culture

Function Goes Fashion

A t-shirt made for the US Army can indicate a soldier's wounds and sends signals for the wounded to be located. Intelligent clothing is in the making - but does it fit everyday fashion styles?

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These shoes were made for talking

Many a child has wondered how to smuggle a beloved Game Boy into bed at bedtime, despite a strict parental ban. A quick wave of a magic wand and a pyjama with a built-in Game Boy could do the trick. Today, clothing fit to meet those exceptional wearer’s wishes are no more beyond reach.

Children’s clothes with slim, sleek computer screens are just a few of a wide range of "intelligent" clothing made and developed by the Klaus Steilmann Institute in Bochum. The institute, which works together with the Brandenburg Technical University, says it wants to change clothes as we know them.

"We hope that our professors will develop completely new functions for textiles and clothing," the institute's Astrid Ullsprenger told Deutsche Welle.

Clever clothes

Intelligent clothing – that is, clothing enhanced with microprocessors, portable sensors and children’s computer games, is paving the way for future fashion. Not only can these clothing articles make jumpers, trousers and jackets more wearable and comfortable, they can save lives as well.

The Recco system, for example, is an electronic device used to locate avalanche victims. The device is so thin it can be integrated in skiing boots and ski jackets. And manufacturers expect more innovations to revolutionize clothing in the coming future.

Clothes can do more than just cover and warm bodies. In future, jackets and trousers will send out alarm signals to its wearers if gas levels in the air are too high, or if the jacket gets wet.

Environmentally intelligent clothing can recognize the level of pollution in the air. Jackets developed by the Klaus Steilmann Institute include a built-in radio-activity meter, various sensors to detect ultra-violet rays, moisture sensors and a camera. All the gadgets are powered by solar cells.

What is essential to scientists and environmentalists can be live-saving to ordinary people too. The out-break of a fire, registered by an intelligent jacket, could save a person’s life. Clothing with these kinds of gadgets are already up for use and being tested by firemen and alpine rescue crews all over the world.

Wafer-thin gadgetry

But the makers behind smart clothes are aware that wearers want comfortable clothing, and do not want to be bogged down by heavy technical gadgets.

Klaus Müller, from the Technical University in Cottbus, is at current working on a new kind of transistor which can be printed on to sheets which are extremely thin and light but still react like "proper" eletronic elements.

The wafer-thin sheets are able to transform chemical information from the environment to electronic signals – one way to warn people with allergies about increasing pollen levels.

However, these transistors do not only react to the level of birch pollen in the air. They can also react to bodily reactions, providing information on body temperature – information crucial both to those with high blood pressures and fitness freaks.

In Britain, the indicator glove, a cyclists‘ glove complete with a blinking indicator light has also made ist debut – with success. According to Bike Magazine, 73 per cent of bike accidents occur at junctions, claiming that these types of clothing to be life-savers.

Clothing manufacturers are responding to developments in the field of business, too. Business suits complete with palm organisor and LCD-display are already on the market – made possible by company Xybernaut’s Wearable Computers.

Filling a function, and more

But do we really need smart clothes in our everyday lives? According to startlab, a consortium developing intelligent clothing "clothing is functional, while intelligent clothing is functionalizable". In other words intelligent clothing can be designed to suit your needs.

Normal clothes generally have three functions: they protect bodies from external influences, they provide the wearer pockets to organize their life, and they allow a person to project their mood, style and character.

Intelligent clothes appear to fulfill all these functions and more. But as Ullsperger says, microprocessors and sensors in clothing need to be "flexible, light and wearable -–so that the clothing looks just the same as normal clothing" – something which can not neccessarily be said of the majority of intelligent garments. Current clever clothing is often bright and somewhat technical looking.

Made to fit the ski slope and the mountain range, cyber clothing still needs a a few cuts more to fit the city streets.

  • Date 09.01.2002
  • Author lb
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  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/1fco
  • Date 09.01.2002
  • Author lb
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/1fco