Engineers at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) in the US have used extended-range NFC to produce a battery-free smart fabric that could enable items of clothing to communicate with each other and with nearby electronic devices at distances of “more than four feet”.
The ‘“body area network” enabling fabric could be integrated into garments such as hospital gowns and sportswear to monitor and transmit health data or into other clothing that would allow the wearer to open and start their car, gain access to buildings or make purchases “with a high five or handshake”, the research team says.
“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 signalling technologies. Our fabrics work on the same principle, but we’ve extended the range significantly,” UCI assistant professor Peter Tseng explains.
“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 research team developed the extended-range NFC using “passive magnetic metamaterials based on etched foils of copper and aluminium”, and because the “signals travel 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,” the team says.
“The materials involved in the system are low-cost and easy to fabricate and customise, 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.”