Wearable devices aren't any big thing anymore. Slap a smartwatch on your wrist, for example, and you're good to go. But in the not-so-distant future, we might be able to ditch those devices and use our regular clothing to store the data we need.

Instead of current, magnetism

In a new study, researchers from the University of Washington looked at conductive thread. Conductive thread is spun from fibers of metal, and it can carry a current just like wires can. But you can also magnetize it. It's this property that the researchers wanted to investigate.

(A little foreshadowing here--think about your credit or debit card strips.)

The research team first grabbed a piece of fabric embroidered with conductive thread. They magnetized the fabric threads so that they had a discernable north and south pole orientation. Once magnetized, the fabric was capable of storing binary data. The researchers were able to store up to 33 million different data combinations, such as door pass codes, on a shirt cuff. They also developed magnetic gloves that could control a nearby smartphone.

Functional and reusable, but not permanent

But what about the washing machine? After all, this stuff has to be practical or people aren't going to bother. Fortunately, the magnetism and data storage held up even through washing, drying and ironing. But time is not the fabric's friend. That's because magnets are made of groups of atoms (domains) that have electrons spinning in the same direction--this is what gives you polarity. Elements like heat, impact, vibration and improper storage, however, can damage this alignment. Subsequently, all magnets eventually lose strength. The effect happens much more slowly in some materials than others, but even "permanent" magnets lose strength over many centuries.

In the case of the researchers' fabric, the team saw magnetic strength fade by about 30 percent in just a week, suggesting that the concept would work better for temporary data, such as the data we put on key cards. Experts also don't think that the technique will come close to the capability of your typical magnetic hard drive. But the researchers hope that customized thread capable of holding stronger magnetic fields might improve the longevity of the information storage. They also note that the fabric can be remagnetized and reprogrammed multiple times.

While wearable technology isn't a new concept, this study is just the most recent example that shows that the technologies are moving past the accessories stage. They can be comfortable, space efficient and inconspicuous, holding a completely different aesthetic than options like bands or glasses. For better or worse, the days of technology and data being hidden in plain sight, embedded into essentials, are already here.

Published on: Mar 23, 2018
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