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Patchwork Computing

Researchers create intelligent–and machine washable!–fabrics.

Researchers at the Media Lab have created modular, computerized patches of fabric that can be pieced together to form items of clothing or accessories. These pieces of fabric can also provide different information and services depending on their configuration.

A purse assembled from the patches can tell when it’s dark outside and turn on an interior light, or it can inform its owner if her wallet is missing. The purse can also be torn apart and quickly reassembled into a scarf. In addition to keeping its wearer’s neck warm, the scarf can play music it has downloaded from the Internet via Bluetooth chips or report the amount of smog in the air. And as its creators, V. Michael Bove Jr. ‘83, SM ‘85, PhD ‘89, a principal research scientist in the Media Lab, and graduate student Gauri Nanda, are quick to point out, the patches are even machine washable. Each contains a variety of sensors and processors and communicates with its neighbors through metallic, Velcro-like edging.

Bove and Nanda expect that others will come up with more imaginative and useful shapes for their invention, which they hope will be ready for commercialization in as little as a year. In the meantime, they are working on enabling the patches to wirelessly download new functions from the Internet.

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