About eight or ten years ago, I was excited about smart fabrics and connected textiles, especially what the next generation could be once materials evolved. Now Microsoft excites me again and, well, skeptical.
This week, the tech giant published a patent pending, called “intelligent fabric that recognizes objects and touch input”.
In other words, Microsoft is developing a fabric that can recognize and identify nearby objects.
So what do you mean by smart fabric?
Smart fabric refers to textiles that integrate technologies such as sensors and conductive threads into the structure and function of the material.
In the case of Microsoft, the patent relates to the fabric in the pocket of jeans. The fabric is embedded with layers of connected sensors that can recognize an object or gesture.
And it’s more than just a seam in a few sensors. The patent also details the development of data processing circuits. It can receive, process and transmit data from the smart fabric.
Then there is a computer system containing a machine learning module. It receives and processes incoming data and builds prediction models. These can recognize an object placed next to the piece of smart cloth or a touch gesture applied to it.
The computer system can recognize objects commonly held in a pocket and their absence. For example, your pocket sends a reminder to your phone when it fails to detect coins for parking meters or your hand sanitizer.
As for gesture recognition, rubbing the phone against your pocket could quickly trigger a command to your phone via NFC. It could also have applications in games and various consumer products.
Not Microsoft’s first rodeo
Microsoft has been interested in smart fabrics and smart clothes since the mid-2010s, filing various patentssuch as electronically functional wire for elegant shirts and gloves.
The current patent is most likely an extension of a 2020 project called Capacitive, where a smart fabric tablecloth identifies foods, such as specific fruits placed on the table, or even liquid inside glasses. This is a bit of an odd use case.
Why am I not holding my breath
There is no shortage of academically possible projects in smart textiles, including smart bandages that can monitor and treat woundsshirts capable of lowering your body temperatureand tissue that can hear. But when it comes to the consumer market, there are few examples of real applications.
The late 2010s saw interest in smart textiles and wearables increase. Processing power has become faster and cheaper, and device components have become smaller.
Despite the hopes of early predictors of the time that clothing incorporating technology would become a useful and functional part of our wardrobe. But technology has let us down.
Even those from Google Jacquard projecta Levis denim jacket that used conductive thread, sensors and IoT tags to create touch and gesture sensitive areas on the jacket sleeve failed to sell beyond its first offering.
What’s left is a handful of exercise clothesGame gloveswearables for athletes and one-of-a-kind creative prototypes designed for couture fashion shows that spend their lives languishing in museums and galleries.
And a whole bunch of academic papers and patents.
Microsoft has a strong philosophy of inclusive design integrated into its hardware and software. It is possible that he will use the fabric in the development of accessible products. But whether it can gain traction in the market and attract consumer interest, at an attractive price, anyone can guess.