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Wearable computers: Marty McFly, meet your jacket

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The band is much more comfortable than current fetal-monitoring devices and can be worn throughout a woman's pregnancy, Dion added.

At the Shima Seiki Haute Technology Lab, engineers and designers are also investigating new ways to digitally fabricate knit garments. The researchers use special software to design pieces of clothing, which are then manufactured by state-of-the-art computerized knitting machines. The process, Dion said, is essentially the fashion industry's take on 3D printing.

Already, the digital models and the resulting prototypes are "remarkably close," she said.

At Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., scientists and fashion designers are working at the intersection of textiles and nanoscience, essentially creating new materials or reworking existing ones.

"We like to create materials that perform a function," said Juan Hinestroza, an associate professor of fiber science and the director of the Textiles Nanotechnology Lab at Cornell University.

To do this, Hinestroza and his colleagues work with fibers, such as cotton, on very small scales — controlling one atom at a time.

"I want to force cotton to do what cotton normally does not do," Hinestroza said.

At this molecular level, scientists can coat cotton fibers with nanoparticles — gold ones, for instance — and then manipulate the interactions between matter and light in the spaces between the particles. To demonstrate, Hinestroza displayed pictures of a brown and blue dress that had not been produced with any pigments or dyes. Instead, the colors on the dress were created by controlling characteristics of individual particles that had been added onto the fibers.

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