Researchers at the Berkeley School of Information have developed a colour-changing ‘smart thread’, that can turn clothes into wearable computers.

The technology, dubbed ‘Ebb’ by its creators, is made of electrically conducting threads, each coated in a colour-changing paint.  As an electric pulse passes through the fabric, the paint heats up and slowly changes colour.

Wear your heart on your sleeve

These dynamic, colour-changing garments hold a treasure trove of uses in our ever-connected world.  A shirt hooked up to your Tinder profile, for example, could glow when your latest ‘match’ walks by.  A change in mood could mean a change in outfit, as you customise the pattern or colour of clothes from your phone. Your sweater could even update automatically to match your Facebook status or latest Tweet.

Although the team bagged the ‘Best Paper’ award at this year’s ‘Computer-Human Interaction’ conference, a wearable display isn’t for everyone.  To find out who would wear the computerised clothing – and why – the researchers held several in-depth focus groups. In these sessions, the team quizzed members of the public to see how they would respond to the garments.

Many were put off at the idea of wearing a bright screen, recalling garish Christmas jumpers and children’s flashing trainers. Ebb however, avoids a back-lit screen; it’s the fabric itself that changes colour.  This is seen in the slow and gentle change of the threads.  “The colour change conjured images of the ebb and flow of the tides, rather than the rapid changes of traditional, screen based media,” said the researchers, explaining its name.

The future of Ebb

Ebb brings together the worlds of computer science and visual art. Ph.D student Laura Devendorf is the artist, designer and computer scientist leading the team.  Joining her is fellow Ph.D candidate, Noura Howell. Noura hopes to add sensors to Ebb that can collect health and fitness information from the wearer.

Kimiko Ryokai is an associate professor at the School of Information and Centre for New Media. As well as overseeing the project, Kimiko looks at making user interfaces simple and easy to use.

Ebb may have sparked many creative ideas, but we’re unlikely to be seeing it in stores any time soon.  Taking the tech to market means the fabric must be able to replace the regular thread in a weaving machine.  As it stands, the current technology is just not ready for wide-scale use.

Ebb was created in partnership with researchers from Google’s in-house technology incubator, ATAP. ATAP’s Project Jacquard looks at hiding sensors and feedback devices such as LEDs seamlessly in clothing.