As convenient as hands-free devices may be, they’re not exactly the most stealthy. Researchers at Ohio State University are working to do your wireless earpiece one better with a new breed of communication system sewn directly into your clothing. Using etched brass, plastic film, and metallic thread, associate professor Chi-Chih Chen and his team constructed a prototype vest with four times the range of a conventional antenna worn by American soldiers today. Since communications reliability is seldom aligned with mobility, military personnel, firefighters, policemen, and even astronauts could benefit from lighter loads and stronger signals.
LOOK MA, NO HANDS
To communicate in the field, soldiers are burdened with large and cumbersome antennas on top of an already unwieldy load. Although the idea of embedding technology into clothing isn’t a novel one, Chen and his colleagues say they’re the first to add a unique computer control device that lets multiple antennas work together in a single garment. The Ohio State system, which sends and receives signals in every direction, can also operate through walls and other obstacles.
The Ohio State system, which sends and receives signals in every direction, can operate through walls and other obstacles.
With sewing machines at the ready, the engineers are working on embroidering the antennas into clothing with metallic threads. Early tests have shown that swirly designs on fabrics such as cotton and even taffeta can function as antennas, which is why John Volakis, director of the school’s ElectroScience Laboratory, envisions clothing for the elderly or disabled that allows them to communicate in emergencies without the stigma of more-visible assistive devices.
“Imagine a vest or shirt, or even a fancy ball gown made with this technology,” he adds. “The antennas would be inconspicuous, and even attractive. People would want to wear them.”