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AD: What are e-textiles?

MO: Electronic textiles are textiles that can behave like an electronic circuit. E-textiles actually either create a circuit element or a circuit in a textile. With that, there are all kinds of different components you can make. You can make an antenna, a sensor, a mechanical switch or a display. These textiles are made of conductive yarns.

AD: Why would people want e-textiles or fabrics that can change color?

MO: The cool factor definitely plays a role. Wouldn't you want your bag to change color at different times? It could display an animated pattern or flower. If you want your skirt pattern to change, you want it to be flexible and soft too. What if the walls of your cubicle could change color to change the mood of the space? You could wear the textiles or shape them or wrap them around things, which you can't do with traditional electronic displays of any kind.

AD: Are there other applications?

MO: Small stand-alone applications that are possible in the next five years could include shoes that tell you how fast you're going or jackets that tell you what the temperature, barometric pressure or smog level is. A hat could tell you how much ultraviolet light you're being exposed to. E-textiles could also be used for museum signage for special shows, wall coverings, cubicle coverings, fashion accessories and point-of-purchase signs. In the consumer market, I've always thought a baseball hat that tells you the score of the game would have a following. An e-textile antenna could improve cell phone and GPS reception.

AD: How big of a market could e-textiles become?

MO: I think fashion is a $100 billion market. Even if e-textiles captured just 1 percent of the fashion market, that's $1 billion. That's not going to happen in five years, but in 10 years it could. And as the population ages, people are looking for ways to monitor their health. Health monitoring is another huge market for e-textiles. Soft fabric sensors could monitor vital signs such as body temperature, pulse and breath rate. Such technology would be more user-friendly than what's currently available.

AD: What would it take for consumers to latch on to the idea?

MO: Applications. E-textile development is still in its infancy. It needs to develop technically. It may be that consumers will end up with products that e-textiles reside in without their knowing it. It could insinuate itself into our world without our knowing it, like the electronics linked to airbags.

AD: What are the obstacles to consumer acceptance of e-textiles?

MO: Applications. There has to be a reason for electronics to be in your clothes. It has to do something meaningful. There has to be a need for interactive clothing to provide information to consumers.

AD: Where will e-textiles first appear?

MO: They'll show up first in the military and medical markets, then the teen market.

AD: Why is the market for e-textiles likely to grow?

MO: People want their electronics to be more tactile, more aesthetically pleasing. E-textiles would help electronics fit into our lives a bit better. They're soft and flexible. They can go places where other electronics can't go now. Consumers could have a relationship with electronics that they don't have now.


Painting, sculpting, cabinetmaking, ceramics — Margaret Orth was proficient at them all by the time she arrived at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab in 1997 to get her doctorate in media arts and sciences. Given her artistic background, software developers at the Media Lab would ask Orth to make their electronic prototypes more aesthetically pleasing. No matter how hard she tried, she says, she couldn't create something stylish out of the electronic components, due to mechanical limitations, such as physical rigidity.

Last year, Orth founded International Fashion Machines, based in Cambridge, Mass., to develop electronic textiles. Her goal: To blur the usual borders between machines and fashion by making computing technology not only wearable, but more appealing. Her company already has a patent pending for a fabric whose color can change electronically. Orth believes e-textiles — or fabrics with the power woven right into the warp and weft of the cloth — would appeal to many markets. Such materials could be used as wall coverings or interactive packaging that could serve as a branding vehicle for upscale gifts or jewelry. They could also have practical uses. “Bed sheets could sense if you're breathing,� says Orth.

Architects, designers and sporting goods companies are likely markets for e-textiles, Orth says. American Demographics' Sandra Yin recently spoke with Orth to learn more about e-textiles' market potential.

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