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Last Updated: Friday, 25 August 2006, 17:48 GMT 18:48 UK
Smart fabrics are back in fashion
David Reid
By David Reid
Reporter, BBC Click

Fibre-optic clothing
Fibre-optic clothing can be used for fashion or the emergency services
The Italian town of Prato has been built on cloth.

There is even a museum there dedicated to its history, so there is no better place to weave together traditional Italian know-how with digital technology and come up with the next generation of cloth, what they are calling "smart fabric".

A company called Luminex has hit on the idea of weaving fibre-optics into fabric, so the wearer can really light up a room when they enter it.

Luminex's Cristiano Peruzzi says: "It is a fabric containing, amongst other things, fibre-optics, but there is also a technical side to it.

"The system consists of cabling, and the fibre-optics are lit by high-efficiency LEDs. The system powering it varies according to the function."

It is easy to see how this technology could conceivably save lives in conditions where visibility is low, such as in fog or smoke
Luminex's glimmering garments include shining shawls, as well as shirts and trousers that twinkle. But it is not just night-clubbers whose stars are coming out at night.

Cristiano Peruzzi says: "There are more immediate applications, everything from clothes for special events or occasions and accessories, and also household furnishings, cushions etc.

"But there are also a whole range of applications that are more technical, such as the security and emergency services."

It is easy to see how this technology could conceivably save lives in conditions where visibility is low, such as in fog or smoke.

Putting technology into fashion might also save the life of Prato's home-grown fabrics industry, currently meeting the challenge of new competition from Chinese companies and imports.

Interactive fabrics

Eleksen's fabric keyboard
Keyboard and audio controls can be incorporated into Elektex fabric
The Italians are not the only ones exploring the interface between fabric and technology.

The British company Eleksen has come up with a fabric that is sensitive to touch.

Elektex consists of three layers of fabric that allow a charge to run between them when you touch them.

Eleksen's chief executive Robin Shephard says: "If it is simply touched, the software will say 'it has been touched, so make that a button. So for a keyboard, make that a Q, make that a W, make that an E, when it is touched here, here, here.'

"But equally the software can say 'if it is touched in [a particular] sort of motion, then it is a swipe gesture and I want you to put the volume up or I want you to put the volume down.'"

The fashion brands are just understanding now that technology can be a fundamental part of fashion
Robin Shephar, CEO, Eleksen
With the software rather than the fabric itself determining what it is used for, the applications are limited only by your imagination and what is likely to make money.

It can be used as a PDA pouch, especially if you go simply print a keyboard on the side and tap away.

Eleksen also hopes that one day every jacket will come equipped with wireless and washable iPod controls.

So how far are we from full blown hardware that is actually soft?

Robin Shephard says: "The fashion brands are just understanding now that technology can be a fundamental part of fashion.

"Flexible displays [will] become proper flexible displays that you can bung in the washing machine and it will wash them for thirty times and they will be fine. When that happens, then we'll see a whole new wave of technologies and information being able to be put into apparel and clothing."

It is not inconceivable that the technology and gadgets you use may not just seem to cost, but actually become, the shirt off your back.

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