Fabric as the new software

Everyday items like watches and backpacks can now be turned into wearable technology. But what if high tech fibers and fabrics could set new expectations for how we use and wear our apparel? Yoel Fink, director of MIT’s research laboratory of electronics joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.


Everyday items like watches and backpacks can now be turned into wearable technology.

But what if high-tech fibers and fabrics could set new expectations in how we use and wear our apparel?

Joining us to discuss is Yoel Fink, CEO of Advanced Functional Fabrics of America, and a professor at MIT.

Thanks for joining us.

So, we've got a bunch of stuff here, but let's start with the big picture, and then kind of work our way to the experiments.

What are you trying to do?

So, fabrics are among the earliest forms of human expression.

They've been around for thousands of years.

Interestingly, they haven't changed much over the entire course of history.

We're trying to change that, and we're actually taking fabrics and turning them into something that is very special, functional, and it's capable of doing things that are of value to us.

Ever since we had the cotton gin, we kind of figured out how to take this puffy, little plant, and then turn it into fiber.

Well, but you're using...what are you using?

Yeah, so, uh, our story begins, [ clears throat ], with, in fact, the filament, or the fiber itself.

So, if you think about a fabric, a fabric is just a, uh -- a collection of fibers.

And the reason this hasn't changed over the course of history, is because the fibers themselves have been made of a single material, like cotton, or glass, or plastic.

Um, in order to make a fiber that is highly functional, you need to combine the three ingredients in modern technology -- a conductor, an insulator that protects it from -- from the surrounding, and most importantly, a semiconductor.

And so, these fibers, in fact, have, for the first time, the three basic ingredients of modern technology in them.

Um, what makes it amazing, is we, in fact, start with a large object, which is identical in structure to the final fiber.

You could see, it has these three materials inside.

We heat it up and draw it in a furnace, into something which is, uh, hair-like dimensions.

So, you're designing the fiber, and combining all three elements in, and then --

And then drawing it down.

Yeah, we call it, 'drawing it down.'

And depending on what materials you put in and what architecture you decide to design it to, the function of the fiber is going to be different.

Okay, let's say, now, you have -- you have examples of things that are made with some of these fibers.

So, what is -- what's different about a backpack that's made with essentially a smart fiber?

Yeah. [ Clears throat ] Well, the first thing is that, you could begin to realize different types of devices in the fiber itself.

So, for example, you could get a fiber that emits light.

So, here's an example of a fiber that has an LED built into it.

Um, what's amazing about this technology is that --

So, now you could have clothes, or anything else, that are -- it's actually lighting up.

It's -- it's lighting up, but more importantly, it's communicating.

Um, you could, in fact, communicate through LEDs.

So, one of the areas that we're developing are fabric-based communication systems, um --

And that's waterproof?

And -- yeah.

And so, what's nice about this is that, unlike any other electronic system that you know of, this kind of works well underwater.

So, you could just put it in water, I'll hold it up, and you see that the fibers light up, really as -- as made, okay.

So, you turn it on, turn it off, it -- it actually works.

So, one area that we're developing is called fabrics communication.

And the key to that is -- is emitters, like the LEDs, but it also is receivers.

And this cap, for example, has fibers woven into it, that are capable of receiving optical information and converting it into audio.

You put this on, and stick the earbud in, and you will be able to hear -- hear the lights.

So, if I'm walking through a museum, and someone's, what, blinking lights at a certain frequency?

Yeah, so, you think about a lot of different situations where you're entering a building for the first time.

You know, it could be an airport and it could be a hospital, or it could be a museum, and you want to find your way around.

Well, the GPS doesn't work inside.

What would happen then, is you would get a cap from, uh, information, and they would ask you, 'Well, where do you want to go?'

And they'll program the lights, and the lights will essentially take you to where you want to go.


Add so -- yeah.

And when you weave in something into a backpack, what -- what can you do with it?

The backpack is connected to an -- to an app, and, um, when you hold it up...


...And I see it here, you could see that, um --

It's just automatic? Okay.

Yeah, there's an -- there's an 'augmented reality' icon.

And then you connect up, and this, you know, happened to be your backpack, and so you just connect into it.

Now, if you point it at the other backpack, and you need to be -- Little bit of a difference.

You see, that is my backpack, and you press on that, and you get to see the information that I wanted to share.

Is it just a specific spot?

No, no, no.

It is the entire, yeah.

There's a 24-bit code that's built-in to the backpack.

And what the app does is it reads this code, it associates it with the wearer, and it is able to pull information from the Cloud on what, in fact, that wearer wants to broadcast, what -- what person wants to communicate.

So, what are some of the applications?

I mean, right now, I'm -- I'm thinking, because of the backpacks, smart clothes that are kind of signaling whatever your identity is that you want to project.

We have fibers that are now capable of changing color.

And if you think about the different shirts you have in your closet, the only difference between them is -- is color.

So, give me an example here.

So, here -- here is a -- is an example of -- of a fiber that is -- is really, the first implementation of a color change.

Okay, but do I have to have it plugged into that box the whole time?

So, well, you could see, it has a dark -- um, it has a dark and it has a light, um... Now, if I keep it on light, and I disconnect it, you'll see that it actually remains so.

And if I reconnected it, and change it to black, it would also remain in the same way.

So, in fact, this does not require power to keep its color.

What is changing it?

Um, so, this technology is very similar to the technology that exists in the Kindle display.

Um, it is called 'electrophoretic.'

You have positive, uh, particles and negative particles.

The white are positive, the black are negative.

And when you -- and these fibers are filled with that ink.

So, I could have two suits in one?

You could have, and we think you're going to be able to have multiple suits in one.

We think you're going to be able to download designs to your fabrics in just in the same way that you download a newspaper, uh, or -- or the news onto your iPad.

At the fabric layer?

At the fabric layer.

So, it's not like a sticker that's sitting on top of the outfit, it is the outfit itself that's changing?

It is the outfit itself.

And if you -- you know, people are thinking about sustainability of fabrics, and the fact that there's so much waste in the fabric industry.

Um, you know, in a -- in a way, this -- what's going to happen here is similar to what happened to newspapers, where we figured out that, to deliver news, we don't need paper.

And to deliver design, we don't need fabric.

I mean, maybe I've watched, uh, too many superhero movies, but this is -- this is, um, sort of almost a chameleon outfit, that you could imagine, say, military camouflage, uh, kind of in a different environment.

Instead of having, oh, well, I'm wearing this particular camouflage, but the brush is different now.


Kind of like a chameleon that figures out how to change.


The -- the need to adapt your color and design throughout the day is not only a need for the military.

It's something that I think we all can relate to.

When can we actually see something like this on a -- a store shelf?

So, these backpacks are already commercially available.

Um, the fabric communication systems are very close to the -- to a commercial implementation.

Um, the center that I direct is called Advanced Functional Fabrics of America, is partnered with industry to do what you just said, is accelerate the introduction of advanced fabrics into, uh -- into products and into the market.

So, we expect big changes in, uh, you know, one-to-two years ahead.

Yoel Fink, thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you.