Paper cellphones, self-focusing glasses, planes that bend, ‘smart’ shoes with tiny motors, cars that repair themselves... they’re closer
ON DAYS OFF, CALGARY GRADUATE STUDENT DARREN JAKAL likes nothing better than to be a fly on a wall—of rock, that is. An avid climber, Jakal steals away to hoist himself by finger and toe up the sheer cliffs of Kananaskis Country, southwest of his city. Jakal’s pastime has a practical side. It’s helping him get closer to his professional goal of designing what he calls “intelligent footwear”—shoes that behave more like, well, feet.
Jakal gets some of his insights clinging to rock with his entire weight on one big toe. The problem: feet are full of joints and cartilage designed to change shape for maximum thrust, support or cushioning in every circumstance, while shoes support feet by being rigid. Jakal finds when mountain-climbing that “if I can’t move at the base of my big toe, I get exaggerated motion in the heel that will cause bone spurs, blisters and bending stress.” The remedy he’s working on as part of his PhD in industrial design raises hope for sore soles on and off the mountain. “You need a different shape of foot for different activities,” Jakal reasons. “What if we can make footwear that will act in the same manner as your foot, so we match your footwear to the change in shape of your foot?” Shoes that arch and flatten the way your feet do? And oh yeah, that might also have tiny motors embedded in them, to give your step that extra bounce? That’s just the beginning. From head to toe, indeed from the street underfoot to the air overhead, a revolution in so-called smart materials is set to transform our experience in ways both humble and mind-blowing.
The example of the “smart potty” may qualify as a bit of both. Companies in Japan and Britain have independently unveiled toilets that can monitor their users’ diet, calorie intake and health, through means best left to the imagination. Coming are a host of other familiar objects with astounding new powers.
DANA OPENED HER CLOTHES CLOSET It was a double-wide, since these new selfcleaning fabrics had allowed her to do away with laundry. Reaching in, she selected a business suit in her favourite shade of midnight blue with a hint of purple. A moment later, she slipped into a pair of low heels and watched as they changed from stone grey (yesterday’s outfit) to midnight blue ... with a touch of purple. That still blew her away.
In the kitchen, she tore a packet open and poured the contents into a bowl. She crushed the empty paper into a ball quickly, before it could launch into its audio instruction on how to pour boiling water over cereal. This talking packaging thing was getting out of hand, with “talkie” strips even appearing in magazines. On the way out the door, she paused to rip a fresh cellphone from the roll by the fridge.
In the elevator, Dana frowned as she remembered the jerk who yesterday left a deep gouge in her new car. But the plastic body panel had done what its maker promised. Overnight, it had regained its original shape; the deep scratch had healed over. She felt a touch on her left arm and raised it to see who was calling. It was only an e-mail. “Have a surprising day! XO, Ben,” scrolled across the midnight-blue silk before twinkling out. Dana smiled.
DANA’S DAY IS STILL IN OUR FUTURE, but not as far off as you might think. The technologies depicted exist, though—as with intelligent footwear—some are in their infancy. Among scientists, engineers and designers in every industrial country, it’s now mosdy a matter of putting the pieces together—and making parts small and cheap enough to appear in everyday items.
How about starting the day putting on a jogging suit that hasn’t budged from where you threw it, damp and smelly, last night? Only now it’s fresh and clean. State university biotechnologists in Dartmouth, Mass., have raised the possibility with fibres that contain living bacteria. Their idea: textiles impregnated with micro-organisms that eat dirt, perspiration and body oils. “You could end up having to feed your shirt instead of wash it,” jokes researcher Alex Fowler.
After leaving the bugs to chow down on your sweat»; maybe you’ll pull on a T-shirt made from fabric that Japan’s Fuji Spinning hopes to be selling by next year. It exudes your daily dose of vitamin C, to be absorbed through the skin, through more than 30 washings. Other vitamins and medicines ^ are promised.
And the layer next to your skin may do more than merely dispense vitamins. Researchers in Ventura, Calif., have shown
a prototype of a vest that measures the wearer’s blood pressure, heart rate and other vital signs—and can transmit that information to a doctor or nurse.
Sensor threads will report the location and extent of any new wound. Also in the works for military or police use: memory chips that hold the wearer’s medical history.
OVERNIGHT, A USED JOGGING SUIT MAKES ITSELF FRESH AND CLEAN
Then there’s the technology that could be folded into fictional Dana’s messaging jacket. Jeans maker LéviStrauss & Co. collaborated with Royal Philips Electronics last year to demonstrate one vision of “electronic” fashion: rather crude couture that inserted cellphones and personal electronic notebooks into special pockets.
Companies in Canada and Israel may have the components of a more elegant solution. Israeli Visson Enterprises Ltd. puts video on textiles by weaving them with fibre-optic threads that glow where they crisscross. Tactex Controls Inc. of Victoria makes a thin rubber film, likewise embedded with optics, that can be placed beneath fabric to make it responsive to touch. Tactex president Rob Inkster imagines his technology married to a fabric display like Vissons: “There’s a patch on your T-shirt or sleeve. It looks like a cellphone and you can use it like a cellphone. A moment later, it looks like a video game and you can play it.” Or maybe it just goes back to looking like a T-shirt.
Graduate student Jakal isn’t alone in imagining clothes that change to fit our shape. Australian researchers are working on a “smart” bra that will sense the movement of its wearer’s body. The material will stiffen to provide the kind of extra support during activity that a sports bra offers, then relax for greater comfort at rest.
Personal accessories have been another target for innovation since long before Buck Rogers’s secret decoder ring. Recently, IBM researchers have built voice recorders into necklace pendants. They also envisage brooch cellphones not far removed from the communicators worn by later-generation crew members of television’s Star Trek programs.
Prescription glasses boasted an early use of “smart” materials. Lenses introduced in the 1970s got darker when exposed to bright light, but didn’t always make the transformation back to clear again afterward. Some high-end frames today employ so-called memory alloys that return to their original shape after being bent. Ron Blum, an optometrist in Roanoke, Va., has a higher vision. He’s built a prototype pair of glasses that alters its correction depending on what the wearer is looking at. His specs measure the distance from the wearer to the object of scrutiny with an infra-red beam. A computer chip processes that information, then tells each of many small pixels in a thin film coating the lenses exactly how much to bend incoming light in order to achieve the desired degree of correction. Complicated? Yup. “But it works,” Blum says.
Others see glasses as the perfect place to hide tiny screens that produce the effect of a large-format display hovering two metres in front of viewers, but visible only to them. One model (called iGlasses) is available now in the United States. A competing version is due later this year. Their makers are targeting techno-sawy travellers who might prefer viewing a DVD of their choice from a laptop to enduring the airlines movie on a drop-down screen half a dozen rows away. So far such goggles have one handicap: they obscure the view of everything else. But that may change, as engineers develop coatings that can switch from fullmotion colour to optical transparency at the flick of a photon.
Like those 1970s lenses, stuff that might qualify as “smart” has been around a while. Novelty mugs with patterns that change when you fill them with coffee employ material that responds to heat by turning clear.
Similar stuff is in frying pans whose dots disappear at cooking temperature—and a new summer stick-on for sunbathers that tells them when they’ve reached their limit of safe exposure to ultraviolet rays. Those pushbutton lighters on some barbecue grills? They use ceramics that release a burst of electricity when compressed. The phenomenon works in reverse, making such ceramics a popular choice for inventors trying to make things “morph,” or change shape.
INSTEAD OF ROCKETS, A CARBON ROPE COULD LIFT LOADS INTO SPACE
But several things are new. Researchers have made giant strides in identifying, purifying and, in a growing number of cases, manufacturing complex materials that can sense, adapt to—or even act upon—their environment. Some new creations detect radio waves, sound or air pressure, and respond with bursts of light, electrons or magnetic energy. Others glow, change their shape or initiate specific chemical reactions on command. Many new materials make use of earlier discoveries in optics and ways of assembling molecules one atom at a time. Other advances, in micro-circuitry and manufacturing, are making it possible to combine new materials with computer processors in places never before imagined, for example, in colour-changing clothing, self-adjusting spectacles or a motorized suitcase that follows its owner.
“There are no smart materials,” insists David Zimcik, a National Research Council expert who uses ceramic like that in barbecue lighters to reduce vibration in helicopters. “There are,” he says, “smart systems.” Those have four critical components: sensors, some kind of processor, a program to guide it, and what Zimcik calls “actuators,” parts that act on their surroundings. In his helicopter system, one lot of ceramics detects vibration in the chopper blade; instructed by a computer chip, another set expands or contracts to stiffen or relax the blade to reduce vibration.
TECHNOLOGY IS TURNING LESSONS FROM NATURE INTO 'SMART7 STUFF
Much of what makes this new stuff so smart happens at the level of molecules—even atoms. Often there’s little to see outside a microscope. Among the most promising new super materials are carbon nanotubes—cylinders of the common element just a few atoms across. The tubes are five times stronger than steel and 500 times as long as they are wide. But they’re so small that even under a conventional microscope, they look like so much grey dust (and cost $1,000 a gram). Montreal native Pascal Hubert is among researchers at a NASA centre in Hampton, Va., trying to figure out “how to take nanotubes and twist them to make nanotube ropes,” the way cotton fibres are spun into thread. By one calculation, such ropes could be strong enough to hoist payloads to a space station by elevator, instead of by rocket.
Making the little big is one way to go. Electrical engineer Kris Pister of the University of California at Berkeley goes another. He wants to make dust smart. He imagines things the size of a few grains of sand that will be able to monitor light and temperature across whole cities and report back to utilities. Pister, understand, lives in a state preoccupied with its power supply. He concedes his “smart dust”—working models are closer in size to Smarties—could also spy on other things, such as when people get up or go to bed, by sensing movement and temperature changes. “Like it or not,” he shrugs, “this is the future.”
More novelties are emerging from thin films with new designer abilities. Blum’s glasses are one example. Another has been developed by researcher Larry Dalton at the University of Washington. A postage-stamp-size dab of his molecularly modified “paint” can serve as an antenna—or transmitter—for virtually any known radio frequencies. Other types of paint can detect corrosion beneath it or air pressure above it, or transmit data more than 100 times faster than most corporate networks. “What we’re really doing here,” boasts Dalton, “is defining the future.”
Ross Hill, a chemist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., has defined another part of it. He uses a process similar to developing photographs to “print” very tiny circuits at a fraction of the cost of existing methods. His components are about the size of those on Intel’s latest Pentium chips, he says. “But they need a plant worth $100 million. We did it on a benchtop with about $50 worth of equipment.”
Hill’s process also works on many different surfaces, making it part of a larger race to put computers everywhere for little more than the cost of the paper or plastic they will be printed on. Already there are talking greeting cards, even chatty packaging. Due on the market later this year are cellphones printed on paper. Their New Jersey developer claims to have orders for 100 million of them, priced at about $15 each and pre-loaded with an hour of airtime.
A remarkable common thread to this explosion of human ingenuity is that much of its inspiration comes not from abstract human theory at all. At NASA, says Pascal Hubert, the hot new topic is “biomimetics”—the art of copying nature. In Victoria, aeronautical composites expert Ansel Suleman dreams: “If we have wings that can change shape by twisting like a bird’s wing, maybe we can emulate bird flight.”
“How,” Washington’s Dalton asks himself, “do you do what the body does?” How do you even do what the big toe does? Darren Jakal is working on that. Meanwhile, technology is already turning lessons from nature into the newest, as well as smartest, stuff under the sun. E3
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