Smart textiles: transforming the everyday. By Chris Hunter and Mark Sugden
The concept of flexible electronics has long captured the imagination of consumers, even though relatively few products have yet made it to market. Much of the innovation activity to date has tended towards the creation of flexible screens for mobile phones, which have taken off with consumers, but now design engineers are seeking to take things a step further.
Being able to bend screens might seem appealing enough, but the creation of smart textiles or fabrics will allow for even greater flexibility and ergonomic comfort, allowing a product to be bent, rolled or folded without compromising its integrity. Smart fabrics could also allow for the further incorporation of technology into our everyday lives; allowing us to play music from our clothes, monitor our health through sensors, regulate our body temperature or reduce our exposure to UV rays. Smart fabrics have even been used to send virtual hugs to loved ones across long distances.
Whilst there are lots of potential uses for emerging smart textiles, from the aesthetic and playful to those that promote health and wellbeing, most are relatively early-stage and not yet market-ready. For example, research scientists at the University of Cambridge have created a material where each fibre is an electronic device in its own right. Examples of such fibre devices are described in patent application WO 2020/221804 A1. When stitched together, the fibres form a smart mat or sheet. This is different from technology that has come before in that the devices are used to form the material, rather than superimposing devices on a prefabricated material.
Perhaps because of the high volume of potential applications for smart textiles, innovation activity in this field of research and development is particularly buoyant. Also, as the emerging technologies are typically used to improve the functionality of everyday objects, it is relatively straightforward to demonstrate both novelty and technical advantages of inventions in this field, which is helpful when attempting to secure patent protection. The commercial opportunity this presents is driving interest in smart textiles innovation.
Another example is a smart sock developed by Sensoria, which has recently secured patent protection in the US (US 11154243 B2). The sock features textile pressure sensors that allow the wearer to collect data about the fit of their footwear. A further example is a smart textile garment developed by IBM (US 9811987 B2). This patent relates to a smart textile garment which uses sensors in a smart textile pocket and the sleeve of the garment to detect the removal of an object from the pocket. Further to this, it can additionally determine whether the object was removed by someone other than the wearer of the garment.
As these innovations demonstrate, there is almost no end to the ways that smart textiles could enhance our daily life. For example, it may soon be possible to use curtains as computer screens or imbue them with their own lighting displays. We could even see textiles being used to help reduce carbon emissions as we head towards the UK Government’s target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. For example, this could take the form of carpets that are able to gather energy from our footsteps, as well as potentially providing heating or cooling systems throughout our homes.
As with all advancements, smart textiles will continue to be refined and developed over the next few years, and some degree of miniaturisation will be key to creating fabrics that can rival the look and feel of clothes. With most of the emerging technologies still at a relatively early stage, there are plenty of opportunities for innovators to secure the commercial rights for something that captures the imagination of consumers and becomes the next big thing.
Chris Hunter and Mark Sugden are senior associates at European Intellectual Property Firm, Withers & Rogers.