What is the role of e-textiles and smart textiles for touch based communication?

Smart textiles or e-textiles are ordinary materials with a range of electronics, conductive materials and sensors woven into the fabric, and that respond to movement and/or touch. Smart textiles are materials that have ‘sensing and actuating properties’. This means they can both ‘sense’ and ‘react’ to external factors in the environment, e.g. mechanical, chemical, thermal, magnetic; they can release medication or regulate body temperature; change colour, light up and display other forms of visualisation (Syduzzaman et al, 2015). According to Syduzzaman et al there are three generations of smart textiles: (i) provides an additional feature in a ‘passive’ mode e.g. anti-microbial material; (ii) has both sensors and actuators, and automatically adapt to changing environments e.g. thermo regulated materials; and (iii) ultra smart textiles sense, react and adapt, they can sense, interact and communicate.

History of smart textiles: Electricity being combined with clothing is not particularly new. It was used in jewellery and gowns at the end of 19th century (Gere and Rudoe, 2010: Jewellery in the Age of Queen Victoria: A Mirror to the World); in astronaut space suits that could inflate, light up, heat or cool down in the ‘60s; for electroluminescent party dresses (Diana Dew); and a fully animated T-shirt in the ‘80s (Harry Wainwright. Since then developments in automatic embedding of fiber optics into fabrics, use of GSR sensors linked to Bluetooth, infra red digital displays and the development of sensor based conductive yarn, conductive rubber and conductive ink, and shape memory materials are all contributing to new ways of thinking about and potential uses of smart textiles (for more detail take a look at Syduzzaman et al., 2015)

Contexts of use, monitoring: Key applications found in the literature are health, safety, military defence, sports (tracking and monitoring systems) and fashion; and more recently super smart textiles are being further developed, driven by needs within space travel, sports etc. According to Martin et al. (2003) wearable devices have really taken off in the context of health and fitness, with tracking devices monitoring physiological changes; behaviour; eating, activity, sleeping habits, context-awareness and location sensing. However, smart clothing/ textiles that are currently available are limited to extreme sports, fitness and entertainment – due to durability limitations (Gorkey, 2016). This perhaps highlights a distinction between ‘wearable’ technologies and ‘smart textiles’, where sensors or conductive materials are woven into the fabric itself. Nevertheless, Clothing + is integrating sensors into clothing – basically to monitor and understand physiological data, such as heart rate, breathing, calorie burn; fatigue levels etc. recognising such changes in your body can alert you to stress levels, for example, and enable you to take steps to alleviate this (e.g Poupyrev, 2015). Another form of ‘monitoring’ can be seen in the fashion industry. For example Intel Edison’s Spider dress is a smart textile dress that responds to mood: it has moving arms on the shoulders that reach out when the wearer feels uncomfortable, sensing this through embedded sensors.

A key question here is whether these kinds of applications are ‘touch’? Are monitoring forms of activity generated through the clothing a form of touch, since they touch the body of the wearer? Are they communicating through touch, since they are sensing different bodily changes and adapting or responding accordingly? Is clothing that enables self-expression and a form of communicating your emotions a form of ‘touch’?

Contexts of use, art/ music: smart textiles are increasingly being use by artists to enhance engagement with audio or music, e.g. Soundbrenner, worn on the wrist or upper arm, helps you feel the beat and rhythm of music. Others are using these textiles to create new art forms, for example, Maggie Orth uses smart textiles for ‘painting’ through large cloth displays, using conductive yarn, thermochromic ink, drive electronics and software, focusing on programmable colour change textiles and touch sensitive textiles with light. These applications offer new material forms for artists and designers, and offer opportunities for new forms of touch-based interaction with art pieces.

Context of use, disability: e-textiles have often been used for their visual properties, but are less understood in terms of their tactile qualities (Giles and Van der Linden, 2014). Indeed the monitoring applications focus less on the tactile qualities of the fabric and more on the sensing capabilities, and displays or communication of sensor output, for example linked to visual forms of feedback through LEDs. Much of this research is not centrally related to touch – yet for the visually impaired the touch sensory system is critical. In the current landscape of smooth touchscreen technology then, smart textiles seem to have much to offer for the visually impaired. Emilie Giles, Janet van der Linden & Sarah Wiseman have done some interesting work – Flatland – looking at performance through touch using haptic technologies – looking at the ‘science of communicating by touch’.

“In our adaptation of the 19th century novella the audience is invited to explore this world using a haptic cube device, which leads them around the completely dark space, designed this way to give visually impaired and sighted audiences a shared experience. The project investigated how technologies centered around touch and bodily perception can form a new sensory means for audiences to engage with dramatic installations”.

This form of performance enables visually impaired and sighted audiences to have a shared experience through tactile forms of interaction.

Communication/ connecting through smart textiles

In parts of the fashion industry the focus – rather than monitoring – has been on connecting people through textiles e.g. the ‘hugshirt’ (CuteCircuit) or the ‘alert shirt’ (from We:eX and Foxtel). The hugshirt, developed by Rosella and Genz in 2002, won an award and was launched in 2006, then updated in 2014. It was designed – not to replace hugs – but to enable people to send hugs to one another when they were away at work or not co-present. The ‘alert shirt’ enables football ‘observers’ to feel what the players are feeling e.g. heart rate changes, bump from a collision between players through haptic feedback on the t-shirt. These two examples offer different ways of connecting – one is a more intimate expression of emotion for someone else, the other a shared experience aiming to enhance engagement – in this case through some kind of immersion in the football game. Both offer explicit ways of enhancing touch interaction, yet also raise issues about the implications for human-human touch contact.

Sharon Baurley describes the heat sensation of the hug shirt as ‘symbolising’ not ‘simulating’ the warmth of a touch/hug. This seems like a crucial distinction to make, especially for those that become concerned about technology ‘replacing’ the human-human, which is considered central to human communication and well being. The symbolic experience is thus different and distinguishable from the ‘real’ experience. This is good in the sense that new experiences are possible, experiences that symbolise something important that may not currently be possible on an everyday basis, or that symbolise someone else’s experience in a way that enables enhanced empathy or engagement e.g. the alert shirt. The symbolic becomes more questionable if it develops to increasingly replace and ultimately threaten commonplace human-human touch. What is important is that we develop a better understanding of what ‘touch’ and ‘digital touch are and the role they each play in human-human communication

According to Rosella what is important with the ‘hugshirt’ is that both the sender and the receiver are jointly creating the human-human communication via the technology. The use and control of the experience is jointly negotiated and becomes part of the emotional engagement between those two people. However this is a specific and constrained scenario – what would it be like or what would happen if all our clothing were smart textiles and the increase in touch communication extends beyond intimate or close family/friend relationships? Would the ‘touch’ sensation then take on a different meaning? Would you be able to distinguish ‘touch’ from different people or different sources? How difficult would it be to maintain control of both sending and receiving touch communications?

What other issues are raised?

Anne Cranny-Francis chapter on Smart Textiles raised a number of issues around touch, and led me to think more about some key questions that smart textiles give rise to in the context of InTouch.

She raises the issue of the ‘makers lack of awareness of the significance of human touch’. To me this raises the question about the difference – for both toucher and touched – between human-human contact, and ‘touch’ contact mediated through technology. Such questions often raise tensions about technology, where on the one hand escalated concerns emerge that human touch will be ‘replaced’ by technology, yet on the other hand the same technologies can be seen by others as serving a valuable purpose in enabling ‘touch’ forms of communication, when such communication cannot otherwise take place e.g. hugging /or touch from a distance when you are away from a loved one. In this case, the technology is extending not replacing touch communication.

The notion of ‘being replaced’ links to the question of whether these textiles can replicate human touch e.g. the right pressure, and highlighting that the lack of other sensory information would significantly change a ‘real’ touch experience, since it wouldn’t accompanied by, for example, the smell, sound of the other person. So we need to ask ourselves whether e-textiles or smart textiles need to ‘replicate’ and where they might be useful without this level of ‘replication’; or indeed, if technology develops such that they can be replicable to this degree, then what issues does this raise for touch communication? Does this mean that human proximity will lessen? One aspect of this idea of replication made me think more about the ‘function’ of touch, and whether this is critical in thinking about contexts of use. So, if the touch action is purely ‘functional’ ie you touch something to make something happen, pressing a switch, then this would not interfere with human-human touch communication – although it might change the individual interpretation of the interaction with the object depending on the feedback of the tactile interaction

Finally, I was struck by Anne’s experience with Fauxy, and the adaptation process she went through, from feeling surprised and responsible for the movement in the clothing beyond her control, to having a feeling of ‘being able to see behind’ her. I think this example demonstrates how an initial wariness of new technology and ‘automated’ behaviour can be reconfigured with a new and interesting awareness.

In thinking specifically about smart textiles, the thoughts here link into broader questions raised about what we mean by communication – with whom? With what? Two way or one way. It raises questions about touch, and what it is to touch or be touched through textiles, through technology, who is touching, who is being touched? What is the function of touch for oneself, for others? Are smart textiles about monitoring, communicating or feeling of fabric?

Loren Klein “to touch is to experience, but to feel is to live”


Cranny-Francis, A (2013) Technology and Touch: The Biopolitics of Emerging Technologies. Palgrave Macmillan.

Giles, E. and Van der Linden, J. (2014) Using e-Textile objects for touch based interaction for visual impairment. In ASGA Atelier of Smart Garments and Accessories, 14 September 2014, Seattle

Gokey, M. (2016) Why smart clothes, not watches are the future of wearables. Digital Trends, January 13th 2016

Syduzzaman, Patwary SU, Farhana K, Ahmed S. (2015) Smart Textiles and Nano-Technology: A General Overview. Journal of Science Engineering, 5, 181

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