Tech 2010: #15 Well Dressed; The Suit That Makes You Feel as Good As Prozac

By Natasha Singer

In laboratories at the Imperial College of London, surrounded by perfume vials and surgical microtubes, researchers are designing the must-have outfit of the fashion future: the aroma shirt. Once it is equipped with electronic sensors that react to changes in the body's vital signs, the garment will know when to deliver scents to the cuffs and neckline from a perfume reservoir hidden in its lining. Aromatherapy enthusiasts will, no doubt, embrace a shirt that can respond to stress signals by circulating calming vanilla scents or emit energy-boosting geranium spritzes during interminable afternoon meetings.

''Pulsing liquid through clothes is not new -- look at NASA's spacesuit-cooling system,'' explains Jenny Tillotson, a self-described ''sensory designer'' who invented the idea of cologne clothing for her dissertation at the Royal College of Art in London. She is now experimenting with fragrance-conductive fabrics for Charmed Technology, a Los Angeles-based company that manufactures wearable devices, and hopes to complete an early prototype for the smell shirt next spring. A primitive version, designed like a circulatory system, with tiny, hollow fiber veins woven into the fabric, may go on sale within the next five years at British department stores.

''We can engineer the delivery system to release a whole range of smells for different times of the day or the month, from your favorite Thierry Mugler perfume while you're at work, to your partner's pheromones to turn you on when you're on your way home at night,'' she explains.

''A garment that senses your moods and, if you're getting too aroused, squirts out a smell to calm you down, opens up a whole new way of life,'' Tillotson continues. ''Just imagine, you put on your pajamas and they monitor you and kick out smell molecules to give you a natural, uninterrupted, even deeper sleep than usual.''

Its gimmicky allure might make the aromatherapy shirt the first commercial success of digital dressing, but it represents only one of the many ''smart''-garment options that information-processing fabrics and data-conductive fibers make possible. The research into these clothes -- at universities, defense facilities and industrial labs like DuPont's -- indicate an anatomical shift from passive apparel that simply looks good and protects us from the elements to active multitasking attire equipped with data sensors and chips that allow it to ''think'' and act autonomously. The promise of such ''intelligent'' fashion lies in consumers' ability to customize it to their lifestyles, health and even meteorological environment.

The first smart garment due to go on sale next year is a T-shirt that monitors vital signs, based on a prototype developed at Georgia Tech's School of Textile and Fiber Engineering and financed by the Navy. The conductive filaments woven into the light-weight white shirt, officially called the Georgia Tech Wearable Motherboard, will wirelessly communicate data to a computer feedback mechanism the size of a pager and attached to the hip. The medical T-shirt measures heart rate, temperature and pulse rate and is initially intended for use by soldiers (because the shirt can pinpoint bullet wounds and relay information to remote triage teams) and babies (because the shirt can monitor breathing and safeguard against sudden infant death syndrome). Its breakthrough, like the novelty of the aromatherapy shirt, lies in having unobtrusive mechanisms. The sensors and communication apparatus are woven or knitted directly into the fabric, eliminating the need for attaching electrodes or thick cables to clothing.

But wearing self-regulating technology also can make us vulnerable. Those concerned about privacy issues might worry that employers or health insurers could hack into the T-shirt's medical data. Still, its low manufacturing cost, easy maintenance (it's washable because the conductive fibers are plastic-coated like telephone wires) and promise of long-distance medical care outweigh the security risks. Homebound senior citizens could wirelessly hook up their heart-rate garments to doctors' monitors in faraway hospitals, the way burglar alarms connect to police stations. Because it responds to the body's vital signs, the T-shirt also could be modified as a training garment for athletes or as a chameleonic fashion statement that changes colors when its wearer's pulse quickens. More significant, the smart fabric has wider implications as a database from which information can be sent or retrieved. Sundaresan Jayaraman, a professor at Georgia Tech, calls the T-shirt he invented a motherboard because, like its namesake, its infrastructure contains all the circuitry necessary for a computer and monitor, along with slots for a central processing unit, but not the processor itself. Within 5 to 10 years, Jayaraman predicts, people will no longer carry cell phones or electronic organizers. Instead they'll dial or type on wireless fabric keyboards knitted into or embroidered on their clothes -- or even talk into voice-recognition shirt collars -- and send the messages via a small electronic device, akin to a pager, attached to a belt or contained in a watch face.

Other smart clothing may work without chips. Climate-sensitive textiles that emit or hoard heat as their internal components change from liquid to solid eventually will allow the creation of thermal suits that maintain climbers' body temperatures on Mount Everest and keep them cool on camel rides through the Sahara. NASA has financed research with implications for the fashion industry: for example, sweaters due out this fall -- made with outlast, a microencapsulated paraffin -- respond to body temperature and store and release heat in an endless cycle.

''In a normal sweater, you overheat,'' says Jonathan Erb, the triathelete who runs Outlast Technologies, and who uses the smart textile in his gloves, socks and bike helmet. ''With outlast, the sweater keeps you warm outside in the winter so you don't need a coat. It keeps you comfortable indoors so you're not getting hot, taking it off, getting cold and putting it back on again every five minutes.''

Sporting-goods manufacturers are experimenting with other smart performance fabrics that may eventually surface, like Gore-Tex, in suburban malls. In the meantime, the idea of clothes that think, or react at least, already is mobilizing ready-to-wear designers, making cybercouture look like an inevitability. Neil Barrett, whose latest models for Samsonite Blacklabel Travel Wear center on ''fashion functions,'' is one of the early high-fashion adopters of smart clothing. There are ''reading jackets'' in the spring-summer 2000 collection that conceal tiny pop-up lamps; ''voice jackets'' with built-in cell phone earpieces; and ergonomically designed ''antistress car coats'' with high-tech fabric that adjusts to a car seat and allows a driver to sit comfortably. These utility-chic styles are analog designs outfitted with simple devices -- but they presage digital suits woven with data-conductive fibers -- and they're already smart in both senses of the word.