Researchers from the Berkeley School of Information have developed a new color-changing “smart thread” that turns fabric into a computerized display.
The computerized fabric technology, called Ebb, was created in partnership with researchers from Google ATAP’s Project Jacquard.
Smart fabric could be used to create clothes or other textiles with dynamically changing colors or patterns. Possibilities include:
A shirt linked to your Tinder profile, that subtly changes color when you’re near someone you’ve “swiped right” on.
A striped scarf that offers real-time bus information; the stripes fade one by one, indicating the number of minutes before the bus arrives.
A shirt with a slogan that updates automatically to match your Facebook status.
A single garment that lets the wearer customize its color or pattern for the day.
A watch woven directly into the cuff of the garment.
The project was named Ebb because “the color change conjured images of the ebb and flow of the tides, rather than the rapid changes of traditional screen based media,” the researchers explained.
The core technology of Ebb consists of conductive threads individually coated with thermochromic paint. When electricity is supplied to the threads, they heat up and gradually change color. For the initial research project, the team used the smart thread to create seven different crocheted and woven fabric swatches.
The team presented their research at the 2016 CHI conference, where the project won a Best Paper award. The annual CHI conference is sponsored by ACM SIGCHI (the ACM Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction).
“I don’t want to wear a screen”
But who would wear clothes that double as a computer display? And why? And how would people respond to computerized clothes? The team explored these questions in in-depth research sessions with seventeen people, including five fashion designers.
At first the participants were put off by thinking of Ebb as another computer screen. “I don’t want to wear a screen,” said one participant. “There’s enough glare in my life as it is,” said another. The idea made them recall past experiences of light-emitting clothing: “blinking Christmas sweaters, children’s sneakers that lit up when they walked, or light-up visors they might get at carnivals and amusement parks.”
But Ebb isn’t a light-up screen; it’s just fabric that changes color. Feeling the fabric samples changed their responses. One participant said that the fabric “seems a lot more tactile and something like cloth rather than plasticky.... I think it’s just more intimate and easier to like.”
Participants embraced the subtlety of Ebb’s gradual color changes. Gemma, one of the participating fashion designers said she “loved the ghostly in and out of thermochromics.” Another participant found the swatches were “more ambient than attention grabbing.” Another thought that “the slowness of the information represented on the display could support a relaxing ‘zen-like’ experience of information.”
Several participants suggested “using Ebb to mystify others, prompting interactions that began with lines such as, ‘Wasn’t your dress blue a minute ago?’ or ‘Wasn’t that stripe on your shoulder before?’ Like an inside joke, this quality of Ebb was seen to bring enjoyment, delight, or a shared sense of ‘being in the know.’ ”
The research team
The research team was led by I School Ph.D. student Laura Devendorf, an artist, designer, and computer scientist with degrees in both computer science and visual art. Her research explores the challenge of designing machines to support human creativity.
Ph.D. student Noura Howell researches the materiality of information representation, the design of affective systems, and intimacy and HCI. She is also experimenting with biosensing and human-computer interaction, and is working to continue the Ebb project by integrating biosensing technology with clothing-based information displays, to explore how people interpret their bioinformation in social contexts.
Kimiko Ryokai is an associate professor at the School of Information and Center for New Media; she researches tangible user interfaces, builds new expressive tools that take advantage of people’s familiarity with the physical world, and studies how new media expand the interaction space. She teaches courses on interface aesthetics and theory and practice of tangible user interfaces.
The Berkeley researchers teamed up with researchers from Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group (ATAP), an in-house technology incubator. ATAP’s Project Jacquard is a platform for embedding sensors and feedback devices in fabrics and clothing in ways that seem natural and comfortable. The platform encompasses techniques for creating fashion fabrics with conductive fibers woven into them, plus small, flexible computing components and feedback devices (such as haptics or LEDs), along with software APIs that applications can use to exchange data with the garment.
You aren’t likely to find Ebb-based clothes in a store near you anytime soon. Although Project Jacquard is exploring a variety of approaches to wearable computing, the current technology isn’t suitable for wide-scale use. Research on Ebb was useful for sparking ideas and uncovering how real people would think and feel about computerized clothes.