Underneath The Fabric
Technology that tugged away yet worked assiduously for your benefits
Reflection on a recent nature electronics publication that details the invention of a clothing-based on-body sensing network for tracking your health, without you even knowing it.
A notable group of young graduate-level scientists and professors from UC-Irvine, USA invented this interesting metamaterial to go with your garments (What is this metamaterial? Sounds almost extraterrestrial. It is essentially an artificial structure that has added physical functional properties such as magnetic or inductive). Okay, cool. So, a niche thing about this particular man-made material is that it could power any attached sensors and transfer their data when activated by a device nearby. The exact technology used here is called Near-Field Communication or NFC. This isn’t something new, you can find it in various shapes and sizes such as at the mall entrance, for checking if tagged merchandise has been stolen.
In a nutshell, the group of researchers implanted a bunch of different miniaturized body sensors on the clothing, collectively forming a network commonly known as Body Area Network or BAN. They synchronously and securely track the body’s steps, activity levels, temperatures, knee bending and etc. by connecting to each other via those metamaterials printed on clothing like T-shirt logos, with very uniquely designed chains to form functional units called resonators, allowing the chaperon of any propagating waves carrying human vitals for your doctor’s analysis. In this manner, the sensors are like train stations while the metamaterial resonators are linked like train tracks connecting all stations.
Arranging this way, when someone wants to operate or read all of the sensor data information from all of these sensors at once, it’s only a tap away by a specialized reader. Then all health information about the person can be obtained via the sensors implanted. Another interesting way information can be transferred from one person to another is simply by joining hands together (figuratively speaking in a way), once the “train tracks” connect, the information eventually flows towards a reader, regardless of whose body the information is from. You can label it of course. As one can imagine the enabling of information flow from human-human, human-machine, and human-robot interactions. Neat.
Interestingly, this invention was motivated by a rising technological vision that let “technology disappear” into the background and had unobtrusive devices for health tracking and beyond. Because no one could believe we will live in a future where we are still carrying bucky and hefty devices around. In the not-so-distant future, our technology will gradually shrink in size, and weight, but increase drastically in number, functionalities, and communicative network nodes.
Intimate sensors if not all other forms of devices will be ubiquitous, they will fill the knowledge gaps in our existence, ensuring all information is implemented, not lost. This could come from the form factor of a tattoo, or something closer in realization is the form factor of fabric material. As demonstrated in this paper, clothing won’t be going away anytime soon, and given its necessity and ideal locale, it is perfect for embedding all sorts of hidden technologies.
Humans will be augmented by these IoT devices of all shapes and sizes, and all purposes and functionalities. We won’t become cyborgs, but we will become mentally augmented Human Beings.
For further reading, refer to the work “Textile-integrated metamaterials for near-field multibody area networks” by Amirhossein et al from UC-Irvine, the publication can be found in Nature Electronics November 2021 issue.
Hajiaghajani, A., Afandizadeh Zargari, A.H., Dautta, M. et al. Textile-integrated metamaterials for near-field multibody area networks. Nat Electron 4, 808–817 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41928-021-00663-0