By Dean Irvine for CNN
Adjust font size:
LONDON, England (CNN) -- From micro-tags in bags to vibrating vests, computing is moving from our desktops and portable gadgets to a more integrated relationship with our lives -- through our clothes.
It's more than just incorporating an Mp3 player into a jacket. Engineers working in the field of pervasive computing are aiming to create smart fabrics, embedded with computer chips and sensors that will enhance and possibly even save our lives.
"Instead of being deaf, dumb, and blind sitting on our desks or in our pockets, our computers might be able to observe what we do all day, understand what is important to us, and act as a virtual assistant who helps us on a second-by-second basis," said Thad Starner, Associate Professor of the Contextual Computing Group at Georgia Tech University.
Starner is at the forefront of wearable computing, developing intelligent, wearable systems that can record and repay information, and has worn his own custom-made wearable computer since 1993.
Embedding technology in everyday objects in nothing new. Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags have been used by companies such as Wal-Mart and Gillette to monitor their supply chains and increase security of their stock. The same existing technology is being used by some airports to track bags, instead of the often-unreliable barcode labels.
However, the next generation of pervasive computing could do more than just keep tabs on where things are. Sensors and microchips could be applied to your bag or jacket pocket and remind you to take your umbrella with you if the forecast is for rain or not to forget your house keys if you are leaving the house.
Adrian Cable, Gauri Nanda and Michael Bove from MIT's Media Lab developed computerized fabric patches that could be placed in clothing or everyday objects.
Each contains a unit of the system, such as a microprocessor and memory, plus sensor or radio transmitter. Adding Bluetooth chips to the patch would enable an item of clothing to literally tell you to wear it if the weather report it picked up from the Internet warranted it.
Bove believes that adding functionality to a bag will become as normal as people customizing their gadgets, like downloading a ring tone for a phone.
Wearable computing also has a natural home in the world of gaming. Nintendo's Wii controller already has motion-sensors and it seems it won't be long before more interactive gear, including clothing, become part of a video-game player's wardrobe.
"Intelligent clothing will remain a specialist item for the foreseeable future, but it has a number of different areas of application, including gaming, diaries and as personal assistants, Cliff Randell, Research Fellow at Bristol University told CNN.
Rather than simply attaching sophisticated pieces of technology to garments, a large area of research is creating textiles that have electronics built into them.
A miniscule chain mail has been manufactured by a team at the University of Illinois that has borrowed techniques from the microchip industry. The fabric Jonathan Engel and Chang Liu have produced has a similar strength to nylon and can conduct electricity thanks to the way it is formed by interlocking rings and rectangles of about 500 microns in width.
Its developers hope it could be used for sensing the wearers' environment and adapting to it by providing heating.
"This area is definitely the future of wearable computing. Attaching devices to existing material just isn't as practical as wearing something that has discreetly built in devices and sensors," said Randall.
However, pervasive computing in clothing is more than just enhancing our gaming experience or wearable aide memoire.
"One area of wearable computing that is seeing a number of advances is in the medical field," said Randall. "Aside from diary application, movement detectors and sensors can record, analyse and upload information on how you are feeling."
Developers at Carnegie Mellon University's wearable computer department have looked at how a wearable computer system can help diabetics manage their disease.
Their Diabetes Management Assistant (DIMA) is a wearable computer system with wireless communication including a glucose meter, digital camera and pedometer.
The scientists working on the project believe that the data stored by the system can be easily uploaded, allowing doctors to identify trends or changes in patients' health.
Another team at MIT's Media Lab have been looking at other ways of keeping people healthy.
Lynette Jones heads a team who are developing a vibrating vest that writes messages on its wearer's back. It is hoped that it could provided vital communication between soldiers in the field or fire-fighters, displaying warnings when normal radios can't be used.
The vest is wearable over other garments and is fastened over the lower body with Velcro. Sixteen small vibrating motors are embedded in the back connected to a control unit on the side of the vest. The unit is linked wirelessly to a computer that can send out commands translated by the motors as patterns on the vest.
The project is partly-funded by the U.S. military and has taken the hand-signals already used by soldiers as inspiration for the symbols on the vest -- such as stop, run, turn left or turn right.
As a tactile set of symbols it is believed that the technology could also be used by fire-fighters to communicate with each other in smoke-filled buildings when hand or radio communication is not possible.
As with all computers, there are some worries over the security of wearable devices that are able to store and wirelessly send personal information.
"The main challenge is making security techniques lightweight, but apart from that people shouldn't be overly worried about security issues," said Randell.
Unlike intelligent tags and the idea of a 'smart dust' -- sensor devices in all objects and appliances that are always 'on' -- the person wearing a sensor-enabled coat would be able to choose with whom or what it interacts with.
"All the devices would be under your control and it would be down to you with whom you share or exchange the information it carries," said Randell.
From recording our daily life to monitoring our health, intelligent clothes could perform a number of roles.