By Kevin Voigt
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(CNN) -- Digital technology surrounds our homes, our workplace and our leisure hours. Now the digital revolution is poised to envelop our bodies.
Electronic garb has captured public imagination since 1930s serialized comics like "Buck Rogers" and "Dick Tracy."
Although technological advances have made breakthroughs in production and durability of textiles, added electronic functionality of clothing has lagged behind advances in computing, communications and appliances. That could soon change.
Enter the "Hug Shirt." Armed with electronic sensors that gauge body temperature, pressure and heart rate, the Hug Shirt allows wearers to give long-distance embraces to loved ones.
"Wearers hug themselves, then using Bluetooth technology and their cell phone, they can send it to someone else wearing a Hug Shirt that simulates the feeling of the hug," says Francesca Rosella, creative director of London-based CuteCircuit, which developed the interactive top. "It copies the strength, length, temperature and heart rate of the hug."
Recently named by Time Magazine as one of the top inventions of 2006, the Hug Shirt is expected to hit the market in mid-2007 priced "around the same as an iPod," she says.
Industry watchers are waiting to see if the Hug Shirt will be the first breakout consumer product featuring electronics woven into the fabric itself. But there are plenty of researchers and manufacturers worldwide developing smart fabrics and interactive textiles.
Forget about the "Wonder Bra" -- Textronics, a U.S. company based in Delaware has developed a sports bra which monitors heart rate and motion of runners. British firm G24i is developing technology that integrates solar cells into clothing to power portable electronic devices.
Researchers are investigating a wide range of "smart" textile applications, such as self-cleaning fabric, suits that "remember" its cut and shape for iron-less wear, and clothing that collects kinetic power generated from the motion of the wearer.
Researchers at the Wearable Computer Laboratory at the University of South Australia in Adelaide have been working on a "smart suit," a jacket that functions like a wearable PDA and cell phone, complete with a "smart hangar and wardrobe" that recharges imbedded electronic gear and synchronizes the suit with a desktop computer upon every hanging.
"When fitting suits, (tailors) typically stiffen and bulk the lapels and the area around the waist -- you can insert a pretty large amount of technology in there," says Bruce Thomas, co-director of the lab. It's now possible to insert cameras, microphones, accelerometers and GPS units into clothing. "Your whole body can be equipped with an array of sensors," he says.
" Your whole body can be equipped with an array of sensors." - Bruce Thomas, co-director, Wearable Computer Laboratory
Thomas predicts such technology will be used to monitor the home health of senior citizens without the financial and emotional cost of placement in assisted living centers, he says.
"Of course, it raises some pretty interesting privacy issues ... some people wouldn't really want others to know the frequency they go to the bathroom," he says. "However, when you're monitoring the health of the elderly that might be (an) important thing to know."
The key for future market success of smart textiles is "the product has to connect with users on an emotional level," says Rosella, developer of the Hug Shirt.
"Many people have developed things like shirts where you can control your iPod with controls on your sleeve, but is that any better than just (manually) controlling the iPod?" she says. "That doesn't catch the collective imagination of users."
The "Hug Shirt" is one of many possible "smart" textile applications researchers are looking into using for everyday life.
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