Kyle Schurman
Jan 4, 2012

Cotton fibers that can compute: Are wearable transistors fashionable?

Wearable computers are nothing new, but researchers at Cornell University are looking to provide a new twist to the idea.


The Cornell researchers are weaving cotton fibers into transistors, creating the ability to store, gather and analyze information without the need for traditional transistors. Other researchers around the world are contributing to the research at Cornell’s Textiles Nanotechnology Laboratory.


Certainly, the idea of wearable computing components is nothing new. For a couple of decades, various companies developed products that contained sensors and wiring woven into the garments. These components had to be protected from water and other elements, so the clothing could be laundered.


One piece of clothing that made headlines several years ago was a jacket that offered the ability to provide USB connections through the wiring that ran inside the jacket’s lining, terminating with connectors in the pocket. Such wearable computing components really haven’t caught on among the general public, however. The clothing wasn’t particularly stylish, it had some bulk to it and it was difficult to use. For example, when you can’t see the USB connectors inside the pockets, it’s difficult to make the correct connection.


Transistors made of cotton fibers would alleviate some of these concerns. The clothing would be less bulky, as no components and chips would need to be attached. Theoretically, having the fibers act as the transistors would allow the clothing to remain stylish.


However, in the several years that researchers have been working on wearable computing options, mobile computing devices have marched on, likely rendering wearable computing clothing obsolete.


Think about it: Most of us carry nearly as much computing power and probably more connectivity options in our pockets in the form of a smartphone than we had in our desktop computers a decade ago. Wireless technologies have advanced by leaps and bounds, making the need for wires to be built into clothing -- like the jacket mentioned earlier -- an unnecessary expense.


With the popularity of mobile devices continuing to grow, researchers are putting a lot of effort into expanding those devices, leaving wearable computing clothing with a shrinking marketplace.


Making transistors out of cotton fibers, which is still at least a few years away from being commercially viable, likely still will have an important job. Those who need close monitoring of medical conditions may be able to take advantage of wearable computing fibers, which could monitor their heart rates and blood pressures automatically and continually, for example. The ability of the cotton transistors to rest near the skin would give them an advantage in monitoring the body.


But it’s unlikely that researchers would need to build WiFi or wired capabilities for sending the data into the clothing, thanks to the power of smartphones, which could connect with the cotton transistors and do the job of transferring the gathered data more quickly and inexpensively. This leaves the idea of wearable computing clothing boxed into a specialized segment.


Wearable computing clothing sounded like a great idea a decade ago. Then again, so did neon colored jackets, fanny packs and denim overalls. All of these fashion tends have been surpassed, and wearable computers probably have been, too.