Losing the remote is less of a catastrophe these days with TVs that can be controlled using your phone or your voice, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement: Researchers at Purdue University have developed a way to turn any fabric into a simple electronic device, so your favorite sweatpants for binge-watching Netflix could also double as a wearable remote.
It’s actually not that challenging to upgrade a piece of clothing with electronic smarts. Google and Levis made a smartphone controlling denim jacket a few years ago, and companies like Columbia have made jackets with integrated heaters. The problem is they always need a power source, like a battery, that needs occasional charging, and if you want to wash them, you have to temporarily strip out most of the electronic components. In other words, unless you never spill food, don’t sweat, and ignore fashion trends, they’re rarely worth the effort.
As detailed in a recently published paper in the Advanced Functional Materials journal, the Purdue researchers have come up with an alternate approach that lets any garment of your choosing be upgraded with electronics. They started with fabrics that are widely available and already used in commercial clothing manufacturing such as wool, cotton, and spandex. The fabrics were first sprayed with a mixture containing conductive silver nanoflakes, followed by a second layer of polytetrafluoroethylene (an ingredient used in the creation of Teflon coatings) to encapsulate the flakes and create electrodes.
This was followed with a treatment of fluoroalkylated organosilanes, which help make the previous layers both conductive and oleophobic. Then they were integrated into a garment through the use of an embroidery process that creates physical, tactile controls using conductive sewing thread. A final spray with an omniphobic coating ensures that these omniphobic triboelectric nanogenerators—also known as RF-TENGs—will keep working in the presence of liquids and moisture, including sweat.
Depending on the embroidery pattern used and where they’re applied on a garment, these electronic upgrades could potentially be completely invisible as they also don’t require a chunky battery to be integrated. Thanks to a phenomenon known as the triboelectric effect, as the wearer moves and interacts with the RF-TENGs, its layers rub together and generate an electric charge.
It’s not enough to charge a smartphone, or even physically shock the wearer, but as the Purdue researchers have demonstrated, its enough to hack together a crude remote on the collar of a shirt for playing and pausing music, a volume control that works as a finger slides up and down it, and even power LED status lights. You can bet ravers will be the earliest adopters once this research moves from the lab and into the streets.