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New fall fashion: Wearable computers?

It's not as crazy as it might sound--and one man who could make it happen is Werner Weber, director of Infineon's Laboratory on Emerging Technologies.

Tech Industry
When it comes to thinking up the next big thing, computer researchers at chipmaker Infineon look to dirty laundry for inspiration.

Literally.

Werner Weber, director of Infineon's Laboratory on Emerging Technologies, is working with a small group of scientists to create a chip packaging technique that will allow clothing manufacturers to combine their clothing lines with washable, wearable computer processors. Infineon hopes this will pave the way for a new crossover segment of the computer industry, where the latest fashions include smart shirts or jackets with sewn-in entertainment systems.

At the very least, Weber hopes to develop a way to create waterproof, miniature computers that are safe to toss into the washing machine. You may not find the L.L. Bean catalog stocking hiking shirts with built-in GPS units anytime in the near future, but Werner says these sorts of garments could find their way to market in the next two to three years. CNET News.com recently spoke with Weber at his lab at Infineon's Munich, Germany, headquarters.

Q: How did you identify wearable electronics as a target market? Was it a discovery you made in the labs or through market research?
A: It was more of the latter. We looked at what we would be as a society 10 years from now and what that society would need. This is clearly application-focused research, not necessarily technology-focused. We start from the application and then develop technology. Wearable electronics was one out of maybe 10 topics.

You developed this wearable chip module with just a handful of people?
Yes. We've been working on it for about two years. The lab overall is about 10 people. For emerging technologies, it is very important to have a spectrum of experts. We have physicists and we have electrical engineers working for us. We also have mathematicians and software engineers.

How do you go about creating wearable computers?
It is primarily a packaging technology. We wanted to use ordinary chips and package them in a way that they could be washed in a washing machine. We went through a couple of different alternatives. We thought about conducting fabrics. But the way we found that finally was more successful and more promising was one where we had multiple bands of fabric that had woven in metalized threads. These are woven strips (of fabric) that contain conducting wires...covered by silver and plastic.

?We wanted to use ordinary chips and package them in a way that they could be washed in a washing machine.?

We found this was the more successful way to do it. These are more versatile than fabric, we found out, because you can create them in all kinds of shapes and route them in all kinds of directions.

The MP3 player module (seen in Infineon's MP3 jacket) is woven in between the layers of a jacket. There is a woven band which contains the wires that connect the device.

How do you make it wearable and washable?
The chip module must be encapsulated. For that we use a plastic material that is close to polyurethane. The material is applied as a paste, and it dries and becomes hard. It is used in fabrics and in clothes today. There are no known allergies to it. We thought that was very important.

What are some of the applications for this? Where might we see it first?
There are a huge number of applications we can think of. Some of the applications we have thought of could be in communications or as a GPS module. The other ones are a security application or in the health and wellness area--a heart monitor, for example. We'll see it used for RFID (radio frequency identification) tags, heartbeat sensors and acceleration sensors.

?It could well happen that in the beginning we start with a high price segment, but our goal is very clear and that's getting into the consumer market.?

We have created concepts where manufacturers of linens use an RFID tag that has your name and which can also track the number of cleanings (the garment) has and your cleaning requirements. There are other applications that may come later in the entertainment area. The MP3 player, however, will not be the first application.

What about price?
We're really not aiming for the high-price professional market--at least not in the beginning. We want to go into the consumer market. There, the pricing requirements are very clear. The price for the electronics as a whole should not exceed 10 to 20 percent of the total cost of the clothes. It could well happen that in the beginning we start with a high price segment, but our goal is very clear and that's getting into the consumer market.

But we're not going to see the MP3 player jacket on the market?
We are using this to demonstrate the technology. That doesn't necessarily mean we want to make a product out of it. It is a very nice way to demonstrate the technology because you can hear what it really does, but it won't necessarily be the first product. Over time, as the technology gets cheaper, it may become a viable product, but I'm not sure about that yet.

How will you get your wearable computer modules into the market?
We will work together with a partner to design an application with him. We work mostly with clothing companies. We look for clothing companies with good ideas. However, we are producers of end user products. We will make modules for partners. We will not make trousers.

How soon will we see these wearable computers?
We are not ready to supply a product yet. It will take about another two years. There's still a fair amount of testing required.  

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