Drawn to a magnet
A fabric that can store data without any electronics or batteries has been developed by researchers at the University of Washington. Due to magnetic properties of a conductive thread, data is stored in the fabric, which acts as a hard disk. The stored data is then read using a magnetometer, which already exists in smartphones to measure magnetic strength and direction to assist with navigation. The magnetised fabric retains data even after it is washed, dried or ironed. The team of PhD student Justin Chan and Shyam Gollakota, director of the university's Networks & Mobile Systems Lab, presented a paper on their finding on October 25, 2017, at the Association for Computing Machinery's User Interface Software and Technology (UIST) Symposium in Quebec City. They exploited previously unexplored magnetic properties of off-the-shelf conductive thread. They experimented by storing the pass code to an electronic door lock on a patch of conductive fabric sewn to a shirt cuff. The door could be unlocked by waving the cuff in front of an array of magnetometers. The researchers also created fashion accessories like a tie, belt, necklace and wristband and decoded the data by swiping a smartphone across them. Justin Chan spoke to Fibre2Fashion's Dipesh Satapathy about the development.
In the past, our lab has worked on projects that involved conductive thread and magnetometers (sensors that can detect a magnetic field) on smartphones. We wondered if we could magnetise the conductive thread, similarly to how one can magnetise a metal nail. To do this, we took a permanent fridge magnet and rubbed it across the conductive thread. When we brought it close to the smartphone, it was able to sense whether the thread was close by. We then realised that with this capability we could create clothes that can store data and act like a magnetic hard disk.
We started on this project in early 2017 as part of my PhD research. The team consists of myself and my advisor Professor Shyam Gollakota. We are both based in the Department of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington.
To the best of our knowledge, we are the first to explore the idea of storing data into clothes using the magnetic properties of conductive fabric.
We used off-the-shelf conductive threads for our experiments. As it turns out, all conductive threads can be magnetised as they contain traces of metal. We used a conductive thread that yielded a high magnetic field strength and was also thin enough to be used with a sewing machine.
No. All modifications can be done at the software level. We could develop an app today and push it to your smartphone, and you would be able to read data from your clothes. We have some sample Android code available on the project website that allows you to see magnetometer readings.
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