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Clothes Are Getting Smarter

Soon, we may be able to wear smart clothing—shirts and pants that use technology to help our bodies work better.

A still from an animated film shows a man looking uncomfortable wearing an unusual looking pair of pants.

© 1993 Aardman Animations/BBC

The 1993 film The Wrong Trousers inspired scientists to invent a pair of pants that helps people move more easily.

Smart technology is all over the place. Humans can ask Alexa to play a favorite song, program a robot to vacuum a room, or send a drone to deliver a package. And soon, we may be able to wear robotic clothing—shirts and pants with smart technology.

Scientists, computer programmers, and clothing designers are teaming up to create smart clothing with a variety of capabilities. The idea is that, rather than just keep us warm, clothing could help our bodies work better.

In 2018, for example, a group of scientists invented a pair of pants with electrical pumps rooted in the fabric. The technology monitors the movement of the wearer to determine when to go into action. The pumps send air into small tubes to help the wearer—possibly someone who is elderly or disabled—do things like get up from a chair.

Jonathan Rossiter, a professor of robotics at the University of Bristol in England, helped develop the technology. “We have developed [pants with] lightweight bubble artificial muscles, which could help people to stand up or to lift objects,” Rossiter told The Guardian.

In Australia, researchers recently developed another smart textile (fabric). In this case, robotic threads were knitted into regular cloth. The threads, which contain fluid-filled tubes, can be programmed to move and even lift wearers who are up to 192 times their weight. The technology has a lot of potential uses, but some scientists envision creating “smart suits” that could be worn to help improve a person’s strength and mobility. 

“Like the Iron Man suit or Spiderman suit,” said lead scientist Thanh Nho Do, comparing such a suit to costumes worn by Marvel Comics superheroes. 

These developments are only the beginning, scientists say. They expect to develop a variety of smart clothing to improve mobility, track people’s vital signs, and more.

Will smart clothing ever make superheroes out of ordinary people? Stay tuned.

Did You Know?

© GCShutter—E+/Getty Images

In 2016, scientists at Australia’s Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology developed a fabric that can clean itself. The fabric contains tiny metal structures that, when exposed to light, break down organic matter, like dirt and sweat.

Smart Clothing, Medieval Style

© loops7, © Burlingham—iStock/Getty Images; Photo illustration Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Computers and robotics didn’t exist back in the Middle Ages. But in Europe, at least one type of clothing was brilliantly designed to protect the wearer. 

Knights and other military men wore a form of body armor called chain mail, or just mail. It was made up of small iron rings that were interlaced and then welded or riveted shut. Knights could cover themselves from head to toe with chain mail, which was intended to provide some protection from injury during sword fights. But chain mail was still flexible enough to allow the wearer to move and do knight-like things, such as riding horses. Knights sometimes wore chain mail under a suit of plate armor. The plate armor provided additional protection while the chain mail helped protect spots where there were gaps in the armor. 

In 2021, scientists from the California Institute of Technology and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory developed a more modern form of chain mail. This new material is made of plastic or aluminum particles that interlock. It’s soft enough that it can be molded into different shapes, but it contains technology that enables it to go from soft to rigid on command. The material could be used as body armor in the military, as a body suit to help people walk, or as a cast that could become less stiff as a patient heals.

Courtesy Caltech

This material, developed by engineers at the California Institute of Technology and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is inspired by chain mail.

Smart Suit

A high-tech suit of armor transformed an ordinary man into a comic book superhero called Iron Man.

© 2008 Paramount Pictures/Marvel Entertainment

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: controlled by computers and able to do things that seem intelligent

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