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The bag that watches your wallet

By Simon Hooper for CNN

The bag is equipped with a radio antenna and receiver and a sensor that detects when it is picked up.
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(CNN) -- For anyone prone to losing their wallet, keys or mobile phone, help could soon be at hand in the shape of a bag that alerts you when you forget something.

As well as keeping track of its contents, the bag also lights up in the dark and will soon be able to check weather forecasts to let you know when to pack an umbrella.

And, if you don't fancy carrying it around, you could always wear it as a scarf that tells you if it might snow or a belt that gives you the news headlines instead.

The smart bag, called Build Your Own Bag (bYOB), is just one object that can be constructed using computerized fabric patches designed by a team of engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab.

Building information-providing and environment-sensitive devices from the patches is as easy as playing with Lego bricks, according to designers Gauri Nanda, Adrian Cable and Michael Bove.

"We were motivated by a desire to design a system for anyone to both build with fabric in a way similar to playing with Lego and create objects that are rich with relevant context-aware computation without having to program," said Nanda, who devised the patches for a project towards a Media Arts and Sciences masters degree.

Each patch contains a microprocessor and memory along with either a radio transmitter, a sensor reactive to light or temperature, a microphone, batteries or a display.

The circuit boards are coated in hard resin and padded with foam for protection and waterproofing within the fabric.

The four-inch square patches can then be joined together using Velcro that contains silver-coated contacts to enable electrical connectivity.

The patches are also pre-programmed to recognize whether they are configured as a bag, a scarf or a pair of curtains and to execute functions accordingly.

"The system was built for anyone," said Nanda, who presented the work at last week's Mobile and Ubiquitous Multimedia conference in Maryland.

"Using this computer means handling soft pieces of fabric that can be ripped apart and put together with Velcro. All the technological complexities are hidden in the design and the fabric can only be connected in one way."

The smart handbag was constructed with a radio antenna and receiver which listens for signals from radio frequency identification tags attached to important objects.

A sensor detects when the bag is picked up and triggers an alarm if it doesn't detect all the items it is programmed to recognize while light-sensing panels illuminate the contents of the bag in the dark.

The designers have also incorporated a Bluetooth chip, enabling the patches to connect wirelessly to the Internet and download information such as weather reports and check whether you've packed an umbrella if rain is forecasted.

The fabrics represent the latest development in "pervasive computing," the name applied to a new generation of communication and information technology that will be integrated into our environments.

While clothes and fabrics with computer chips and sensors have already been created, particularly for military and technical use, the advantage of the patches lies in their versatility, re-usability and accesibility.

Based around cheap and readily-available electrical components, they could soon be made commericially available, with bYOB retailing for around the same as an ordinary leather handbag.

"The danger with pervasive computing is that difficult-to-use devices are infiltrating our lives in a way that are not natural to the way we interact," said Nanda.

"Our approach is to put relevant applications inside everyday things such as our clothes and bags, hiding the technology and keeping the design simple yet user-configurable."

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