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Communication Apparel and Optical Fibre Fabric Display


Vladan Koncar, Emmanuel Deflin, and André Weill




1. Introduction


In the first part of this chapter we introduce basic definitions of communication apparel, describing the process of conception and its main components. Building blocks that have to be used in order to realize these generations of apparel are mentioned and analysed from the point of view of textiles. A classification of innovative, communicative and intelligent functions attributed to communication apparel is also developed.

When analysed individually, the terms “apparel” and “communication” indicate well-defined meanings that are closely related to our style of living and our environment. Therefore, our “apparel” defines our preferences, style or social position, and our “communication” defines the way we communicate with people, including our family, friends and professional colleagues.

What does the expression “communication apparel” convey? What kind of communication function is supposed to be integrated into apparel and what is the purpose of this integration? We could say that fashion and clothing styles may explain the basically passive communication expressed by the apparel, for instance color and patterns. However, this passive communication function of apparel is not the focus of this study. We shall focus instead on the active communication that has to be implemented into apparel in order to enhance the traditional and well-known functions of clothing.

Thus, new forms of communication integrated into apparel, based on the latest electronic devices and data transmission processes, are examined. These should clarify the possibilities for the use of new technology and indicate probably future development related to communication apparel. The area to be investigated is vast and concerns various applications in the fields of health care (.e.g. vital functions monitoring, diagnostics, etc.), military applications (combat apparel, injury detection, etc.), leisure (games, multimedia, etc), business and many others. Nevertheless, all of these applications have a common point – the integration of electronic systems into textile supports.

After covering this step, we will analyse various emerging technologies which allow the integration of electronic devices into garments and textile accessories. Finally, it is important to note the distinction between wearable communication and “wearable computers”. Which are not incorporate into the clothing itself, but transported as objects. Wearable communication also differs from “intelligent clothing”, which reacts to exterior or physiological stimuli to regulate and control the user’s well-being, like the vitamin C distributing T-shirt, for example. In the second part of this chapter, a new approach to the design of flexible textile displays, simplifying the concept and overcoming the drawbacks of liquid crystal display (LCD) or cathode ray tube (CRT) video screens (rigidity, volume, and weight) will be proposed. In addition, a display based on fabric made from optical fibres and classic yarns is described. The fibres are first specifically processed so that light can scatter throughout the outer surface of the fibres, resulting in a transversal restitution of the light. The diameter of the fibre section can be reduced to 0.25 mm, enabling extremely thin and light fabrics to be developed.


2. Communication Apparel


Initially, and from a purely technical point of view, the concept of communication apparel may be perceived as the result of a convergence of two industries: textiles and electronics. The miniaturization of electronics makes it possible for people to carry with them all kinds of devices, qualified as “portables,” with functions ranging from leisure (Walkman, MP3, portable television) communications and information management (mobile phones, personal digital assistants) to health (pacemakers, physiological sensors of parameters).

In another arena, the textile industry has made considerable strides in the field of high value-added textiles, mainly in the sectors of high-performance textile and fibres. The use of new materials and the development of new structures and integration processes make it possible to develop supports able to convey information while being mostly based on the properties of electric conduction. These new achievements in the textile industry enable electronic devices to be directly integrated into the structure of textile, therefore modifying the functionality of the apparel. Besides the main functions of apparel, which are protection and passive communication, the clothes become the second skin or an interface with specific functions between the individual and his or her environment

2.1 From basic clothing to new communication apparel


It seems appropriate to examine first the traditional functions of clothing in order to be able to detect the latent needs that could be met by adding intelligent and communicative functions. (Fig.1 summarises those traditional functions in three main areas: protection, extension of oneself, and organization of personal space.)

More and less futuristic projections are given in the second part of this figure on what new functions of clothing of tomorrow could have. All of these concepts can be linked to the intrinsic functionality of clothing. The majority of these new functions are technically feasible today, but require the contribution of various technological specialities (textiles, electronics, telecommunications) according to the clothing’s so-called intelligence-level. A classification of these new types of clothing is proposed in the next section.

Innovative high-performance textile fibres, yarns, and fabcrics, combined with miniaturized electronic devices, enable several intelligent functions to be incorporated into apparel. Fig.2. shows the stages of development that lead to the elaboration of communication apparel, including the inclusion of telecommunications functions. All of the technologies used in the process of elaboration (high-performance textiles, electronics, communications and telecommunications) are related to blocs describing the properties that can be useful in the conception of communication apparel. All of these technologies add new functions to the communications apparel, leading to changes in the way we define this apparel. The properties of intelligent and communication apparel, and their potential targets and applications, are detailed in the next sections.


2. Intelligent apparel


The term “intelligent apparel” describes a class of apparel that has active functions in addition to the traditional properties of clothing. These novel functions or properties are obtained by utilising special textiles or electronic devices, or a combination of the two, Thus, a sweater that changes color under the effect of heat could be regarded as intelligent clothing, as well as a bracelet that records the heart rate of an athlete while he or she is exercising. Intelligent clothing can therefore be classified into three categories:

- clothing assistants that store information in a memory and carry out complex calculations

- clothing monitors that record the behavior or the health of a person

- regulative clothing, which adjusts certain parameters, such a temperature or ventilation

Finally, all intelligent clothing can function in manual or automatic mode. In the case of manual functioning, the person who wears the clothing can act on these additional, intelligent functions, while in the automatic mode the clothing can react autonomously to external environmental parameters (temperature, humidity, light).

Communicative clothing can be perceived as an extension or as the next generation of intelligent clothing. Although all clothing communicates intrinsically by virtue of its appearance, the type of communication referred to here is that of information coded and transmitted by means of eletronic components in the clothing. In addition to the first examples of the integration of portable telephones and miniature PCs, many applications are being studied and have yet to be imagined. Communication can indeed be achieved between the clothing and the person who wears it, or between the clothing and the external environment and other people. In both cases, “communicative” clothing refers to any clothing or textile accessory that receives or emits information to or from the structure that composes it.

Everyone wears clothing, and most people are concerned with the appearance of communication apparel. However, needs will be different within any given group of people. Let us simply note that the broad, principal topics are:

- professional (the need for ‘free hands’ functions, safety, data exchanges)

- health care (monitoring, training, remote diagnosis)

- everyday life (telephony, wellness)

- sports (training, performance measurement)

- leisure (aesthetic personalization, network games)


Previous sections have described communication apparel as an extension of the functionality of intelligent clothing, A study bof the various technologies involved in the process of producing intelligent clothing can help to anticipate the new uses and new communication services that could be added to clothing. It is therefore advisable to have a vision of the various techniques likely to confer an unspecified form of intelligence on clothing.

In Fig.3. the various stages concerning the design of new communications apparel are shown with building blocks (peripherals, processing data, connectors, and energy) that have to be utilized in order to realize new specific functions. These building blocks are obtained using electronic components or textile electronics combined with technological and integration processes. Finally, the building blocks for several important properties are given. In the following section, the building blocks for integration are developed.


2.4. Various building blocks for integration


The second column of the table in Fig.3. shows the classification of various electronic parts that can be included in communicative clothing, according to four principal recurring topics:

- peripherals

- processing data

- connectors

- energy


A short description of these components is provided below, in order to understand better the objectives of research currently being undertaken on electronics ‘related to onself.’


2.5. Peripherals

The main peripherals supposed to be used in communication are mentioned and quickly analysed in the next paragraphs:


Control interfaces - near the ‘human interfaces’


The use of clothing to support control interfaces is interesting because the control interfaces can be close to the parts of body that are concerned, for example earphones in a collar or a bonnet, a microphone in a collar or a keyboard applied to the sleeve of a jacket. Another interesting example is, of course, voice recognition.

The ergonomic adaptation to clothing of all these control interfaces is also very important. In contrast to certain miniaturized communicative devices, clothing has a greater surface area, which enables it to offer more functionality. For example, the small keyboard of a mobile phone that fits into the palm of one’s hand becomes much more readable when transposed to the surface of a piece of clothing that is three times larger. On the other hand, the lightness and flexibility that also characterize clothing implies a need to redefine the forms and materials employed for these new interfaces. New properties guaranteeing resistance to wear and to washing must also be taken into account.




Since clothing accompanies every body movement and is sometimes in direct physical contact with the person, it has become an ideal physical support for translating and interpreting human activity by means of sensors. Clothing could be used to detect different actions, in particular the recognition of gestures, in order to facilitate certain commands that are intuitive, as with the automatic release of a phone call when one moves the collar of clothing to the ear. Moreover, when these sensors are associated with computing and with the control unit, they may allow the recognition of situation and context for a better interpretation of reality.

Sensors in communicative clothing could also be used as psychological sensors for various parameters. This term refers to the sensors used to record health or person parameters in a broad sense. The applications rising from the use of these sensors are numerous. We can, for example, use sensors to provide a physical performance analysis of an athlete, or to conduct a patient medical follow-up in real time.


Interfaces of information restitution


In many cases, it is necessary to display or reproduce the information produced by communicating systems integrated into clothing. Therefore, traditional interfaces such as displays, screens or loudspeakers have to satisfy the same ergonomic and mechanical resistance criteria as those quoted in the case of control interfaces. Concerning color liquid crystals screens, for example, the aspects of rigidity, weight and consumption, which characterize them at present time, have to be adapted. Solutions concerning microscreens in glasses or using technologies, including flexible supports, have begun to appear.

In addition, the proximity of clothing and textile accessories to the natural human senses opens up new possibilities for the transmission of information. Visual and auditory ways of collecting information (such as screens and loudspeakers), which are today largely developed because they do not require direct contact with the user, could soon be joined by tactile and olfactory methods…


Data processing

The material support of memory, computation and data processing (RAM, hard disks and processors) will certainly not evolve much in the short term unless they do so in the direction of miniaturization. Even if the developments are achieved on flexible substrates, they remain fragile and require partly rigid protection in order to be integrated into communication apparel…


Connector industry

Connection problems are another major issue in state-of-the-art communicative clothing. The principal question is how to transport information and energy between the various components of the electronic system with optimal efficiency. The concepts of weight distribution and ergonomics must be taken into account in distributing the various components on various zones of the body.

Diverse techniques of wireless transmission exist; for example, infrared or radio operator waves using various standards (IEEE 802.11; Bluetooth). If these modes of transmission are to free communicative clothing from the need for physical connections, several additional constraints must be taken into account. For example, the energy consumption necessary for their operation may be important. Moreover, when it is a question of simple information transport (such as an open or closed contact or something similar) or of energy transport, wired connections become indispensable. The wireless connections mainly have to used to connect the user to the external environment. In addition, it seems interesting to have only one energy source distributed to the disparate electronic interfaces, thus allowing a better energy management. On the other hand, each electronic interface could have its own computation and storage capacity, which would allow resources to be allocated and weight to be distributed.

It is important to examine the problem of control and the centralization of information restitution. In fact, to be able to manage all of the functions of a complex communicating device, it is necessary to centralize outgoing controls and incoming information on a single interface. …




Autonomy in energy is still a main handicap of the majority of mobile electronic devices. Many users if wireless devices have no doubt dreamt of never having to reload their mobile phones. Even if electronic circuits require increasingly less energy, new possibilities appear and create additional need for energy (a larger screen size implies a need for greater power consumption).

Even in the case of communication apparel, autonomy versus weight and volume is once again a compromise that must be made. Battery technologies evolve (e.g. lithium-polymer), but, unfortunately, the batteries are still often the heaviest part of portable devices. The advantage of communication apparel is that the weight distribution in clothing will make it possible to be partly freed from this constraint.

Another interesting alternative seems to be the use of renewable energy sources. Solar energy and wind are relatively poorly adapted to clothing because they require large surface areas to be truly effective. On the other hand, many studies have been carried out on techniques that will make it possible to recover the energy released by the physical activity of the human body during the day. And, once more, clothing is an ideal support for these new recharging systems. […]


Optical fibere fabric display

Optical fibres in textiles

Optical fibre flexible display (OFFD)

Display matrix design

Electronics and telecommunication services

Flexible display application


Future investigations...


From: Xiaoming Tao, Wearable Electronics and Photonics. Cambridge: Woodhead Publishing Ltd., 2005. Chapter 8.

Quoted with permisison. Copyright Woodhead Publishing Limited, ISBN 1 85573 605 5; no further copies allowed.