Engineering 101

Pay for Purchases… With a High-Five

Imagine your car starting the moment you get in because it recognizes the jacket you’re wearing or a hospital gown that continuously measures and transmits a patient’s vital signs. These are just two applications made possible by a new “body area network”-enabling fabric invented by engineers at the University of California, Irvine.

Researchers in UCI’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering have integrated advanced metamaterials into flexible textiles to create a system capable of battery-free communication between articles of clothing and nearby devices.

“If you’ve held your smartphone or charge card close to a reader to pay for a purchase, you have taken advantage of near-field signaling technologies. Our fabrics work on the same principle, but we’ve extended the range significantly,” said Peter Tseng, UCI assistant professor of electrical engineering & computer science. “This means you could potentially keep your phone in your pocket, and just by brushing your body against other textiles or readers, power and information can be transferred to and from your device.”

The fabric would allow electronics to establish a signal as you hover your clothes over a wireless reader in order to share information with a high-five or even a handshake. This means that you wouldn’t have to manually lock a car with a key or wireless device. Instead, your body would BE the key.

Lead author Amirhossein Hajiaghajani, a UCI Ph.D. student in electrical engineering & computer science, said the invention enables wearers to digitally interact with nearby electronic devices and make secure payments with a single touch or swipe of a sleeve.

The researchers compare the tech to a railway that transmits power and signals as it crisscrosses a garment. The system allows new segments to be added readily, and separate pieces of clothing can be paired to “talk” with one another.

Assistant Professor Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Peter Tseng and Amir Hossein Haji Aghajani Memar Doctoral Student photo: Steve Zylius/UCI

The near-field communications protocol has enabled the growth in applications such as wireless device charging and powering of battery-free sensors, but a drawback of NFC has been its limited range of only a couple of inches. The UCI researchers extended the signal reach to more than 4 feet using passive magnetic metamaterials based on etched foils of copper and aluminum.

The team’s innovation was designed to be highly flexible and tolerant of bodily motion. Because signals travel in the UCI-invented system via magnetic induction – versus the continuous hard-wire connections that had been state-of-the-art in smart fabrics – it’s possible to coordinate separate pieces of clothing. In athletic gear, pants can measure leg movements while communicating with tops that track heart rate and other stats.

Additional applications of value are in the realm of medical. This technology can free hospital staff from the task of applying numerous patient sensors, as they can all be integrated into metamaterial-equipped gowns.

The materials involved in the system are low-cost and easy to fabricate and customize, he noted, and varying lengths and branches of the metamaterial “rails” can be heat-pressed onto wearers’ existing clothing – no need to go out and buy a brand-new high-tech tracksuit.

The textiles could easily integrate with wearable designs and provide relief from the burden that modern-day electronics may bring to our lives.

Source: University of California – Irvine

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