National Geographic : 2003 Jan
clothes are all about. "In the past, clothing pro tected us from the elements' said Ian Scott, head of technology for women's wear at British retailer Marks & Spencer. "Then clothing became about fashion. The future is about cloth ing that can do something for you. It's no longer passive. It's active." In the next few years, M & S hopes to introduce an "intelligent bra," a sports bra that can sense stress and adjust its dimen sions to give perfect support. "We're not divulging how it works," Scott said. Somehow, I was not surprised. Jeff Wolf, head of a small start-up called Sen satex in New York City, enthused about a smart T-shirt with conductive fibers that feed into a small transmitter that can monitor vital signs like heartbeat, blood oxygen, respiration, and body temperature-and that's just for starters. He showed me a prototype, which looks pretty much like an ordinary T-shirt, but of thicker material-similar to an Ace bandage-with sev eral ports for phone-jack-like connectors. Down the road, he explained, sensors that carry light and video can be incorporated into the shirt, as can a GPS signal. Its inventor, Sundaresan Jayaraman, a pro fessor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, envisions applications such as monitoring babies at risk for sudden infant death syndrome, keeping tabs on post-surgical geriatric patients at home, and making sure firefighters on the job don't suffer from heat or other physical stress. "I call the shirt a wearable motherboard," Jayaraman said. "There's no limit. We can plug in as many sensors as you want." The infor mation travels via conductive fibers woven into the shirt to a small wireless transmitter, which will send the information to be interpreted wherever you specify-say your doctor's office or hospital monitoring station. In the future, clothes won't just sit there. They'll be primed to do something.Though the potential of a product like Jayaraman's smart shirt is impressive, just how active and garrulous we'll want our street wear to be is another matter. 60 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * JANUARY 2003 In a digitally manipulated image, goats hang by a thread to make a point. Goats bred by Nexia Biotech nologies in Montreal contain a spider gene that causes a spider-silk protein to be expressed in their milk. This protein is being used in a new fiber that's five times as strong as steel, with potential application in bulletproof vests. "Do you really want your clothes to talk to you?" I asked Katharine Hamnett, a forward thinking London designer noted for no-holds barred opinions. "Absolutely not," she said. "Imagine what they'd say. Things like 'you liar.' Besides, there's enough chatter in the world."