NEW YORK A growing group of researchers is coalescing around the idea that the future of mobile computing may have less to do with small PCs and more to do with something they call smart yarn.
At the center of the activity, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has released a request for proposals that aims to bring together people and technologies in the textile and electronics industries to forge the tools, processes and fundamental technology needed to build a new class of wearable systems made of fabric. Darpa said it will devote "tens of millions of dollars" to the so-called e-textiles program over the next five years, with the first projects slated to be announced early next year.
While Darpa has its eye on military applications such as parachutes that generate solar power or track satellite signals, it expects to engender a broad range of commercial products as well.
Developers on both sides of the fence are hailing the effort as breathing life into a nascent market for wearable computers that to date has been focused on a relatively small opportunity: shrinking PC-like architectures for mobile workers in a handful of vertical industries.
"I can't tell how fast the maturity level will go up and we'll start fielding systems, but this [e-textiles] field looks very viable," said James E. Saultz, business-development manager for Lockheed Martin's Advanced Technology Labs (Camden, N.J.).
Lockheed Martin will submit a proposal for the e-textiles initiative, working with textiles researchers at Clemson, Drexel and the University of Pennsylvania as well as a number of small research companies including Trident Systems (Fairfax, Va.). "It's a very broad set of technologies we're trying to pull together here," Saultz said.
Rich promise, high hurdles
Technologists in and outside the Darpa program say the e-textiles area is rich with promise, but holds significant challenges. Hurdles include ramping up the performance capabilities of textiles to meet the wireless Internet dreams of consumers and redefining existing computing architectures to mesh with the capabilities of tomorrow's fabrics.
"What we are not going to do is put a laptop in our jackets. We don't want to compete with CMOS," said Robert Graybill, Darpa program manager for the e-textiles initiative. Instead, the program will enable systems where "you can take your electronics and roll and crumple them up, then still expect them to work. That will open up a whole new domain of applications," he said.
"What we are finding is the textile researchers and the computer architects don't even know each other," said Graybill, who hopes the project will also draw in materials scientists and software developers. "One of the goals of this program is to create this new community."
Darpa aims to spur development of new kinds of yarns, fabric interconnects and CAD tools for weaving into textiles the equivalent of a printed-circuit board. Those systems will include sensors, actuators, photovoltaic devices, batteries and storage.
It also aspires toward advances in reconfigurable software and low-power design, both requirements to make such systems viable. For example, the program calls for an extremely lightweight operating system that is distributed and reconfigurable in nature.
"I may tear my jacket, so you need a computer architecture that can offer fault tolerance and be reconfigured," Graybill said. "The kind of computer architecture we have today may not work in this area where we have electronics distributed across a very wide area."
One key to this emerging area is the relative maturity of low-cost textile production today. "As an IT guy, I was totally amazed at how sophisticated textiles are," said Graybill, who has been studying the field since he joined Darpa about two years ago. "In a printed-circuit board, you have vias and traces, and you can do that same thing with yarns."
Besides large defense contractors like Lockheed Martin, a number of companies are expected to file proposals, due Dec. 6, with Darpa. Among them are materials companies such as DuPont, a consortium of electricity-generating companies and many small companies such as Softswitch Ltd. in the United Kingdom.
"We hope to develop some advanced circuit boards that are complete textile integrated circuits made from fabrics," said Steven Leftly, research leader for Wronz Euralab Ltd. (West Yorkshire, U.K.), a textiles research company that is a joint-venture partner in forming Softswitch.
"We are working toward entire electronics systems made of fabrics. We've even got a display made of fabrics," Leftly said.
Currently, Softswitch is licensing to a number of computer, automotive and medical companies a pressure-sensitive material suitable for creating keyboards and other devices in fabric. The material uses a so-called quantum-tunneling composite that reacts to pressure, changing from an insulator to a conductor. It can be geared to respond to a wide swath of sensitivities ranging from a human breath to a truck running over it.
The company has also prototyped light-emitting fabrics based on a four-layer organic light-emitting diode that can scroll dot-matrix-style characters in the manner of the Times Square news display. It expects to advance that work to a full 400 x 500-pixel fabric-based display in two years.
"This is probably cheaper than a notebook computer display because the materials are cheaper and it's made on a printed system like an inkjet printing process," said Lefty.
"There's starting to be what I would call a set of textile tools and industrial fabrics from companies like DuPont for distributing power and data," said Maggie Orth, founder and chief executive of International Fashion Machines, a Cambridge, Mass., startup formed in July to design smart clothes.
"There are a variety of conductive fibers available today, though none are ideal, and there are starting to be products to integrate into a complete yarn system," said Orth. "But there's a lot of stuff we still have no idea how to do. The challenge in connecting things is probably one of the biggest hurdles. Another problem is, there is no silicon equivalent in textiles."
Reinventing networking is another stumbling block. "One of the challenges is getting a good low-cost Internet for these systems. That's critical," said Darpa's Graybill.
"People have yet to look at textiles as an integrated material to create devices. It's hard. I think this is the equivalent of the space program in many ways," Orth added.
Today's conductive fibers are up to the task of safely sending any amount of power or signaling. As an example, Orth pointed to a $199 electronic blanket now available from Lands End that uses conductive fibers rather than wires to distribute heat. While the blanket feels as soft and flexible as any, aesthetic issues still dog most electronic-friendly yarns, Orth said.
"I have seen audio sent over conductive fibers. The question is how durable is it. There's a trade-off between wearability and conductivity," she said.
For its part, International Fashion Machines "lives somewhere in between the fashion designers and the technologists," Orth said. Its first project involves creating interactive logos with animations, in partnership with startup E-Ink. "We want to create stuff for the fashion industry. These people don't know what a battery is, so everything has to be integrated," said Orth.
The work on e-textiles provides a fresh direction for a wearable-computer business mired in pint-size Windows PCs that can cost as much as $5,000. To date, such products have attracted business from only a limited market mobile field workers in warehouses, airline hangers and other environments where desktop PCs prove unwieldy. At a conference on wearable computers in New York this past week, some observers estimated that market sold no more than 2,000 systems valued at $20 million last year.
Roger Byford, chief executive of Vocollect Inc., took issue with that assessment, reporting that his private company alone sold several thousand StrongARM-based wearable warehousing systems last year to major accounts including Wal-Mart. He said Vocollect is growing at about 100 percent a year.
Other wearable-systems makers, such as Xybernaut Corp., have been designing and testing wearables with users for several years and are just now seeing their first revenue. IBM Corp. will make 25,000 Pentium/Windows CE-based wearables for Xybernaut next year for sale to customers such as Bell Canada and Federal Express. Hitachi Ltd. has agreed to make a consumer version based on its SH-4 processor.
Not another desktop
"The industry has wasted $1 billion in failed products like pen computers," said Thad Starner, an associate professor at Georgia Institute of Technology, famous for wearing since 1993 his own PC104-based computer with head-mounted display. "People have perceptions of a wearable computer that led to disappointment when they saw a device. But this is not another form of a desktop computer."
Starner believes that the market for wearable computers "has been underestimated. This could replace every portable consumer electronic product." He also suggested wearables could help Alzheimer's sufferers cope with their disease.
"This could help people live at home longer, and that's a huge savings," Starner said. "The real problem is not the hardware, but getting people used to the concept that this is like a suit and it has to be tailored to the individual."