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Scientists develop intelligent clothing

Smart clothing may soon be high fashion (www.salontv.com)

Swiss researchers are working to develop clothing that will allow people to monitor their heartbeat, check an e-mail address or even switch on a blender.

Billed as the next stage of the IT revolution, a mini-computer could be built into your shirt, your belt, or just about anything else that you wear.

Scientists at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich say the idea is to develop a number of electronic parts, which can then be integrated into clothing and accessories.

"The parts work together to perform tasks such as monitoring your health, providing information or perhaps even protecting you," Pavel Lukowicz, head of the Zurich research team, told swissinfo.

One goal is to develop clothing with a built-in personal digital assistant (PDA) that knows what people are doing and provides them with information to complete a task.

"Mini-computers in trouser pockets, a ring and eyewear could work together to give you the same functionality as a palm pilot," Lukowicz says.

Smart uniforms

He points to the example of a maintenance worker using a smart uniform to help repair a machine. His uniform might include eyewear that indicates which part of the machine needs mending.

The Swiss researchers believe that high-tech clothing could be especially beneficial to the infirm.

A special t-shirt for a heart patient, complete with sensors and global positioning system, could keep him remotely wired up to an ambulatory service.

"The beauty about wearable computing is that you can continue doing whatever you are doing and the computer supports you in doing it," Lukowicz says.

In the United States, military researchers are working to develop uniforms that can adapt to a soldier's environment.

With this information, the soldier could blend into his surroundings - much like a chameleon - as his clothing changes colour to fit the situation.

In London, designers are working on an intelligent apron, with built-in microphones, which would allow a cook to control kitchen appliances with voice control.

Ready-to-wear

Despite advances by researchers, it may take some time before intelligent clothing is ready-to-wear.

Researchers in Zurich expect it will be a few years before any of their prototypes can be brought to market.

In the meantime, they face a number of challenges.

One is developing a fabric suitable for smart clothing that can be machine-washed. Another is ensuring the components are small and flexible enough to be incorporated into clothing.

Nevertheless, Lukowicz predicts that some day wearable computing will become a hot fashion item that doesn't come with a designer price tag - costing only a few Swiss francs.

swissinfo, Samantha Tonkin and Karin Kamp

Smart clothing summary

Researchers in Zurich are working on computing technology that can be incorporated into clothing and accessories.

One of the main uses would be in medicine, with smart clothing able to monitor a patient's heartbeat.

In the United States military researchers are working on a smart soldier's uniform, which would change colour to blend in with the environment.

The new wearable technology is not expected to hit the shops for several years yet.

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