UW researchers develop smart fabric to open doors

KING 5's Lili Tan reports.

Stitch by slow, ultra-precise stitch, Justin Chan knows becoming a seamstress may not be his calling.

“I think there are other career prospects better suited for my skills,” said Chan, a second-year Ph.D. student at the University of Washington’s Computer Science Department.

The researcher is developing a smart fabric that can store data, so someday we won’t have to carry around cards or badges to get into our houses and offices. Instead, we will be able to use our clothing.

“One day we basically brought a fridge magnet next to the conductive threads and found out they can actually be magnetic, and that’s when we had that aha moment,” Chan said, explaining conductive clothing can act like a hard drive. “What we’re exploring here is their magnetic properties and this is something never been explored before.”

The technology was presented in a paper at the Association for Computer Machinery’s User Interface Software and Technology Symposium in late October.

Using inexpensive magnetometers, commonly found in smart phones for GPS, as readers, Chan says we can program a shirt or jacket and “just scan against a door to open it.”

The fabric, made of conductive thread, can even go in the washer and dryer. Chan says people from the fashion industry have contacted his team to talk about how designers can incorporate the technology.

There’s just one snag.

“It’s the same as if someone steals your keys,” Chan said, when asked if a thief steals a programmed piece of clothing. “If someone steals your keys there’s nothing you can really do about that. You’re just going to have to change the locks.”

Still, he says the possibilities are worth sewing on.

“Suppose you had your finger to touch this patch.  It could start playing sounds from your library,” he said. “I think that's a very exciting future that you can imagine.”

 

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