The government has been known to invest in strange and unorthodox projects in its sordid history. For example, did you know that in the late 70’s, the CIA tried to create a cadre of spies with psychic abilities to perform long-distance telepathic espionage on our enemies? Well, it may seem like something out of Get Smart, but now the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), an arm of the Office of the Director of National Defense, has announced that it is in the process of developing “smart textiles” that are computerized, “ready-to-wear clothing that can record audio, video, and geolocation data.” Including shirts, pants, socks, and underwear, these spy clothes will be hooked up with tiny microphones, cameras, and sensors that are planned for for use in a myriad of surveillance and health services.
Already spending more than $22 million dollars into the project, the National Defense Department is designing the clothing to be durable, flexible, and washable–as close to real clothing as possible. Dubbed “Smart Electrically Powered and Networked Textile Systems” (or SMART ePANTS for short), these active smart textiles will remove the need for certain security officers to carry electronic devices to respond to internal and external environments and will instead use the advanced clothing network to adapt to the user’s situation.
In this way, SMART ePANTS distinguish themselves from passive smart textiles like UV-resistant outerwear that uses the physical attributes of its structure to block cancer-causing sun rays. Instead, the active smart textiles will generate electricity into batteries and circuits on the garments to constantly surveil the surroundings of the wearer and respond accordingly.
A Few Concerns
The project is ostensibly designed for use in espionage and national security purposes as there is a strong emphasis on the clothing looking subtle and well…like normal clothes. With “weavable conductive polymer ‘wire’, energy harvesters powered by the body, ultra-low power printable computers on cloth, microphones that behave like threads, and ‘scrunchable’ batteries that can function after many deformations”, the project is going a long way to ensure that the textile is not only practical, but well hidden. Much of the text behind the project also hints at some medical uses, as the project manager of SMART ePANTS, Dawson Cagle, has stated that he came up with the idea for computer-integrated clothing by watching his father struggle to monitor his Type-one diabetes and the development of cell phones. While not going into much more detail, it can be inferred that perhaps the clothing can detect bodily conditions such as blood sugar, temperature, blood pressure, etc. and perhaps alert the wearer or adjust conditions to equalize any maladies.
Like any government project, it seems as though the inner mechanics and details of the active smart textile is a bit clandestine to say the least. No source really seems to say what the clothing will actually DO exactly. As of now, the project is being developed for private, military, and perhaps medical use, but perhaps could see a commercial debut sometime in the future. After all, everyone wears clothing (most of the time) and we all use an external smart computing device at some point in the day. So why not combine the two?
Well, the United States has a particularly nefarious history of exploiting people’s personal privacy, especially after the 9/11 terror attacks and the passing of the Patriot Act. With surveillance cameras already catching controversy for AI-enhanced features like facial recognition, what kind of Pandora’s box will be opened when the intricate functions of your own body are tracked, logged, and sent to who knows where? In an era where we freely and willingly give our facial, fingerprint, and internet-based data to tech companies, it will perhaps be all too easy for them to take advantage of our bodily details as well. Perhaps this is sheer speculation, but it is important to be aware of the potential dangers of this technology before it is too late.
The development of these smart textiles are seemingly in the beginning phases, and who knows what kind of advancements will be made in the near future. Surely there are those who have seen fictional characters like Iron Man or Master Chief from the video game Halo franchise and not been jealous of their self-regulating, super-powered armor suits that help keep them alive in harsh battle conditions. That technology does seem rather far away, but perhaps the SMART ePANTS are the first step in finally giving us the revolutionary smart clothing of the fiction.
Those self-tightening shoes from Back to the Future II would surely be nice.