Business

MIT lab shows off smart threads that can send messages, change color

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

‘Fabric is the new software,” says Yoel Fink, the CEO of Advanced Functional Fabrics of America.

Massachusetts lost its leadership in the textile trade a century ago. But a new research effort at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology could launch a comeback, by developing smart fabrics that can send messages, tune in audio signals, or change colors on command.

“Fabric is the new software,” said Yoel Fink. an MIT professor of materials science and chief executive of Advanced Functional Fabrics of America. AFFOA is a public-private partnership founded last year, headquartered at MIT, and backed by more than $300 million from universities, corporations, and federal and state governments throughout the United States.

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“As a state that was fundamentally all about fibers and textiles for years and years, this was an opportunity for us to grab back some of our heritage,” said Governor Charlie Baker, who attended Monday’s grand opening of AFFOA and its Fabric Discovery Center, a laboratory for creating innovative fibers, fabrics, and clothing items.

Similar centers are slated to open at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and MIT Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, as well as at other US locations.

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Fink said that fabrics have differed little for thousands of years. But that’s about to change because of innovative fibers that work like computers, and manufacturing techniques that let cloth makers weave unique features into every yard of fabric.

For instance, guests at the event received a new kind of backpack made by the California company JanSport. At a glance, they were nothing unusual. But AFFOA scientists worked with JanSport and Inman Mills of South Carolina to weave a unique digital code into the fabric of the bags.

The 300 bags at the MIT event looked identical, but in fact no two were alike. And a smartphone camera can see the difference.

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Each guest got a bag which they then registered online, posting information about themselves. Everyone could scan one another’s bags with a smartphone app, and instantly learn about a bag’s owner: his or her name, occupation, and favorite song, for instance.

The same technique could be used to embed information into any kind of clothing. For instance, a clothing maker could embed information about a stylish item, with information on how to buy one just like it.

Visitors also tried on baseball caps with earphones attached. Standing under a lamp, a wearer could hear voices and music, because optical fiber with silicon circuitry was woven into the top of the cap.

The circuitry, like that found in computer chips, processes pulses of light from the lamp and transforms them into audio signals — no radio or smartphone required.

Fink dubbed the technology “Fabric LiFi” and called it “the world’s first fabric-based communication system.”

He came up with the idea during his time as an infantryman in the Israeli army, when he realized it might be safer to communicate with other soldiers by zapping their uniforms with a narrow beam of light rather than broadcasting an easily intercepted radio message.

But Fink also has civilian applications in mind. He thinks a Fabric LiFi cap would be an ideal way to provide directions to people in large stadiums or shopping malls.

More important, because the new fibers can process data like a computer, Fink said, engineers will be able to develop an endless array of ways to use it. In principle, the clothes on our backs could become our personal computers.

Scientists from the AFFOA-affiliated University of Central Florida offered another fabric innovation inspired by the military. In a demonstration that visitors were not allowed to film, a camouflage cloth changed its color on command. Each fiber contains a thin wire that acts as a heating element.

By altering the temperature of the cloth, the camouflage shifted from bright green to dull gray. When such uniforms are perfected, soldiers might be able to fade into the background just by flipping a switch. A similarly smart fabric could let fashion-conscious civilians change their look without changing their clothes.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com.
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