Safer working on construction site and safer journeys to school are just the start as many more such wonders are there in the pipeline wherein Smart Textiles are the next big things for technology lovers.
It was in late 2017 that Osram Semiconductor Opto’s Specialty Lighting BU launched a project. Christened as Textile Illumination as working title, the project helped in greatly improving the visibility and perception of safety and sports clothing compared with passive elements such as reflectors and signal colours. The event on the Zugspitze, a fairy-tale landscape between gentle hills and rugged mountains against the backdrop of Germany’s highest peak, which facilitated the technology giant with an apt opportunity to test the equipment in chilly frostiness and in a physically tough game under extreme conditions.
Integration of LEDs into Textile
It was during the end of the 2018 that Osram took its first step toward weaving smart lighting into clothes. LEDs integrated in the players’ outfits replaced the usual reflectors, significantly improving the visibility of the protective equipment and clothing. The company then announced the introduction of workwear that lights up with LEDs, and strongly hinted that interactive apparel is in the pipeline under which Osram may soon introduce cycling jacket that gets illuminated while hitting the brakes, and lights that flash when the rider’s pulse rate rises too high.
Working with Fürth, Germany-based safety and sportswear company Uvex, Osram got the LEDs stitched into safety vests and workwears. The first stab at textile illumination that Osram had developed stops short of interactivity as it simply focuses on giving visibility to workers on job sites. To which the company claims that the textile illumination was incorporated into the safety clothing with an aim to ensure greater visibility and in turn enhanced safety in day-to-day work life, especially for those employed on construction sites or deployed to controlling road traffic.
The Experimental Game
Unlike the reflector strips on conventional workwears which only reflect incident light, the LED modules ensure active illumination at all the times. The later thus helps improving safety for workers performing in the dark or in poor visibility conditions. To ensure no failure, Osram kept the technology testing for some time. Under the testing phase, Osram used this technology to illuminate ice hockey players’ kit, sticks, and pucks in a night outdoor game, which was organised in the German Alps, about 10,000 ft. (3,000 meters) high from the sea level.
The experiment registered a great success as the game turned out to be a spectacle wherein the players’ kits and helmets provided a special light show because of being equipped with the first-of-its kind small stripes, fitted with LEDs, and lit by micro eletronics. The components used in the process were as small as a coin. Sewn into the fabric or attached to the helmets, they were hardly visible when not in operation and did not inconvenience the players in the slightest.
The two teams from German ice hockey champion EHC Red Bull München played against each other on a specially created rink. LEDs were integrated in the players’ outfits to improve the visibility of the protective equipment and clothing. It was bathed in perfect light by OSRAM, the official lighting partner of EHC Red Bull München – with floodlights and LED strips in the ice. The event was the cool high point of the 110th brand anniversary and also included a premiere.
With sportswear as part of the mix, the company has plans to add sensors so as to enable integrated LEDs to respond to physical stimuli, providing health alerts, safety measures, and more. Simultaneously, the company would introduce an app, enabling users to control various applications simply with the help of a touch panel. Like for instance, sports clothing would itself warn the one wearing it about a high pulse rate via the light guides, or a cycling jacket with an integrated brake light.
The credit of this particular innovation at Osram goes to Stefan Hofmann, who thought about integrating LEDs to clothing and accessories, while he was out for jogging one evening. He then extended it further as his ideas went on encompassing the safety of not only joggers (sportspersons), but also of cyclists and children to remain lit up at dawn and dusk. Hofmann was the Director Innovation Management in the BU SP at Osram.
All thanks to the advanced LEDs that could make this possible. Compact, energy-saving and cost-effective, these tiny wonders are opening up so many new areas of application. Hofmann then set about developing a technical and commercial feasibility concept. Following which, he met with experts from the textile industry and to no surprise, his idea sparked great interest.
According to Hofmann, the technology player is always on the lookout for innovations so as to make life easier and safer. “The time had now come to find premium partners in the clothing industry for whom we could offer real added value – a lead over their competitors through innovation, and greater safety for their customers through better visibility,” he had been quoted as saying in a press report.
Something Light to Wear
Greater safety was therefore a major factor right from the start. Conventional work clothing and schoolbags are mostly equipped with reflectors. They only become visible when the reflectors are directly illuminated – and that may be too late. There are situations where this passive protection is inadequate – for example in poor weather conditions and around dusk and dawn.
However, with active flashing strip lights on their backs, children on the way to or from school and workers on construction sites are instantly visible in such situations. The Safety Lights from Osram remain active throughout the day, and not just when the light from car headlamps hits them when the driver gets only fractions of a second from to avoid a possible collision. That’s a small detail with huge importance.
Keeping all this in view, it was quite evident that the solution had to be more than a fashion accessory, which made it essential that the LEDs are of high quality and extremely reliable. Schoolbags and protective work jackets are subject to great wear and tear. The LED modules will have to continue to work properly even if they come into contact with water.
The solutions developed by Hofmann and his team do precisely that. They are permanently integrated in the clothing or schoolbag, easy to use and can even go in washing machines and tumble dryers. Efficient LEDs ensure a long life for the certified light modules. The lights are powered from a smartphone or power bank.
No wonder that this active lighting is much more than a fashion accessory and has gone far beyond prototype status. Reportedly, the clothing for workers from Uvex equipped with active lighting has been in the market since the summer of 2018 and demand is steadily rising, while schoolbags from Scout have been in the shops since the fall.
Citing the potentials, the company now has a separate segment called Smart Textile Illumination, wherein Hofmann’s team has many more ideas in the pipeline. All thanks to the technological trend towards LED miniaturisation that has enabled light to be integrated in textiles. The potential of innovative lighting technology for clothing is far from exhausted. At present, the focus is on the safety aspect of active lighting but in future it will be on smart analytics.
For example, sports clothing could warn the wearer that his or her pulse rate is too high. Or a cycling jacket could include an acceleration sensor and indicate to other road users that the cyclist is braking. Further miniaturisation of LED technology will enable it to be woven directly into fabrics. Innovations such as these will make not only Stefan Hofmann’s evening jogs a little safer.
Thus exploring yet another way to deploy LED lighting as things in the Internet of Things (IoT), Osram has been trying to establish LED lights and luminaires as nodes and backbones of information technology networks. It became evident in October last year when Osram acquired a significant minority stake in retail industry software company beaconsmind. The aim was to help outfit retail stores with lights that communicate with in-store shoppers, offering discounts and useful information. Osram has successfully deployed the same at Guess and Marc O’Polo retail outlets and at shopping malls in Switzerland.
While the industry experts speculate and expect that in future, OLED technology will be the preferred choice for integrated textile illumination, Osram instead opted to get stitched the LEDs like many other illuminated clothing providers are doing. No wonder, the combination of LED modules and sensors is opening up many more possible applications.
LED lights on garments have appeal for various industries including fashion & entertainment, besides sports & safety applications. Clothing with incorporated LED displays has many different applications, ranging from smartphone-linked notifications to glow-in-the-dark clothing. No wonder the fashion and sports industries are continuously exploring ways in which electronics can be implemented and integrated into clothing.
For instance, displays can be stitched into the arms of a garment and used to relay information including biometric data or programmable designs. The entertainment industry uses LED costumes to attract and retain the attention of the audience by creating mesmerising effects through the combination of light and colours.
Innovation from Other Players
According to Journal of Textile Science & Engineering, wearable smart textiles are not only about illumination but are fabrics that provide the wearer with enhanced functionality by displaying a set of favourable properties or by sensing, reacting, and/or adapting to stimuli in the environments to which they are exposed. Functionality enhancements can be engineered for specific applications like for the safety of the wearer, sensing and reporting of the biometrics of the wearer, heating or cooling of the body based on external requirements or contributing to enhanced performance in sports and related activities.
Electronics are often integrated into these fabrics and the integration provides enhanced functionality to the wearer’s clothing. When we talk of electronics, LEDs are no different which Osram has used in its recent innovative solution with illuminated jackets for workers. For this, Osram has used MicroLED as the illumination technology for its workwears or wearable smart textiles. MicroLEDs have the potential to serve in a more energy-efficient way to create flexible fabric displays as compared to LEDs or OLEDs.
Prior to be used as safety measure, the smart textiles incorporating LEDs have been developed by many other technology players. For instance, JacquardTM by Google is a technology, implemented in the Levi’s® CommuterTM Trucker Jacket, interacts with the smartphone thereby allowing user to manage calls, texts, GPS, and music without the need to actually pick up the phone. LED lights have been used as an option to communicate alerts.
Similarly, researchers at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Hong Kong, China, considered wearable smart textiles for phototherapy. For this purpose, they used side-emitting polymer optical fiber (POF). Using LED light sources and POF, they developed a flexible luminous fabric device for wearable three-dimensionally fitted low-level light therapy. The wearable device showed promising results, and it was determined that the POF fabrics caused no harm when it was in direct contact with the wearer’s skin.
PLACE-It was another project focused on creating stretchable and adaptable smart textiles for human and automotive applications. The project also considered LED and OLED displays to create illumination in wearable textiles. In addition to the safety factor of having illuminated smart clothing, light has also been used to increase overall wellness. Philips Lighting, Ohmatex, and ten other partners participated in the project. PLACE-It designed wearable smart textiles applicable for blue light therapy, OLED technology, biomedical technology, and automotive lighting.
Seebo® a company which mainly focuses on Internet of Things (IoT) products and development, proposed a new way of using smart technology in work wear. The idea of an automatic alarm being held within the garment improves safety greatly, and it works well in tandem with the LED indicator light. Sensors held within the jumpsuit could be configured based on the individual needs of the industry. For example, lab workers will probably need more chemical sensors present in the jumpsuit than maintenance workers.
As smart textile technologies are becoming increasingly smart with each passing day following incessant research bringing in new applications to light. Soon smartphone to clothing communication would become popular within wearable smart textiles, which are becoming increasingly advanced and helpful in health management, sportswear, industrial work wear, temperature control, safety, and entertainment.
Although implementation of wearable smart textiles in the workplace increases the overall safety through favourable antistatic and conductive properties, the technologies developed for wearable smart textiles are still being improved and developed. It is important for industrial applications to ensure that the clothing will not decay quickly due to static, washing, or normal wear for the job.