News Release

A bag that never forgets

Reports and Proceedings

New Scientist

IMAGINE a handbag that warns you if you are about to forget your umbrella or wallet, and which you can later turn into a scarf that displays today's pollution levels. Or how about creating a wall hanging that glows if someone tries to use your home's wireless internet connection? All these bizarre objects could soon be possible thanks to a system of computerised fabric patches developed by engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Each patch contains a functional unit of the system- a microprocessor and memory plus either a radio transceiver, a sensor, a microphone, batteries or a display. Put the patches together in different ways and you can create a variety of information-providing or environment-sensing objects, say developers Adrian Cable, Gauri Nanda and Michael Bove at MIT's Media Lab. To keep it waterproof, the circuit board inside a patch is coated with a hard transparent resin. It is then padded with a thin layer of foam and encapsulated in the chosen fabric. It can be populated with a variety of components, from Bluetooth transmitters to a cut-down PC motherboard.

The patches are joined using Velcro, which has been modified to enable electrical as well as physical connections. Wires from the circuit board are attached to silver-coated contacts in the Velcro. In this way, data and power can flow from one module to the next. Using square or triangular patches the user can fashion, and refashion, useful objects such as bags, belts, curtains or scarves. "You could wear a system as a scarf today and a belt tomorrow," Bove says. Researchers in the field of pervasive computing have already come up with computers and sensors worn in jackets and waistcoats. But these cannot be reconfigured to do different jobs. With the patches, however, a user can easily swap modules to use the system for a variety of functions. To make a bag that prevents people forgetting things, Nanda and Cable have equipped a module with a radio antenna and receiver. The unit is programmed to listen for signals from radio frequency identification tags on objects like cellphones, keys and wallets. A sensor module in the bag's handle detects when the bag has been picked up, indicating that the owner might be leaving. This triggers the reader to check through the objects the computer module has been programmed to look for. If it does not detect a required item, it uses a voice synthesiser module in another patch to warn: "Cellphone, yes! Wallet, yes! Keys, no!"

Nanda and Cable have plans to make to the system smarter. They want to add a Bluetooth chip so it can connect to the internet through a nearby computer and automatically download weather reports. Then it would only speak up if you forgot your umbrella and it was raining. As these add-ons emerge, the system can be upgraded by simply snapping on new sensors. "People would add functionality to their bag, just as they download ring tones for their phones today," Bove says. One man is who very impressed with the idea is Thad Starner, a researcher in pervasive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. For 10 years he has been wearing a computer in the form of a PC in a backpack, an eyepiece that acts as a monitor, and a 12-button keypad bound to his hand. "These smart patches open up the idea of having computer interfaces that you can rapidly customise to suit your life," he says. Being able to convert wearable technology, from bags to belts, for example, is particularly useful, he says. The technology will be presented at the Mobile and Ubiquitous Multimedia conference to be held in Maryland next week.



This article appears in New Scientist issue: 23 October 2004


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