Researchers at France Telecom have recently developed operational prototypes of flexible colour screens integrated into clothing, opening up new horizons for services that let users display images on the clothes they wear. An initial range of purpose-built garments has been created by designer Elisabeth de Senneville.
These flexible display screens usher in a new type of self-expression: the image a person wears personalises their clothes to reflect their particular surroundings, centres of interest, mood and potentially some new areas no-one has thought about yet. Displaying animated visuals on yourself considerably broadens the scope of personal communication by giving you the opportunity to instantly convey emotions or desires in a distinctly novel way, or proclaim your adherence to certain ideas, as is sometimes the case with printed T-shirts.
Users choose the type of information they want to display on themselves - drawing, logo, animations or short messages they either generate themselves or receive from others.
"Clothes are becoming a key interface for giving graphic expression and form to your moods. It's a very personal symbolism, an emotion or state of mind that you can now display publicly and very simply through eye-catching animated graphics and short texts," explains Emeric Mourot, France Telecom R&D project manager.
The screen is connected to a mobile phone via a Bluetooth link, so drawings and animations can be sent by MMS to another user with the same equipment. Thanks to a dedicated embedded software application, the mobile can be used as a remote control to activate the screen's functionalities: adjust the brightness, select the image or text to be displayed, enter text, draw simple animated visuals, download animations from the Internet, etc.
A more sophisticated animation editor has been produced to allow professionals to market their own animations, which will be online and downloadable via the Internet from a mobile phone.
Sensors integrated into the screen mean it can also be used as a "standalone" device to display visual sequences stored in the screen's memory or specific animations triggered by certain gestures or sounds.
This generation of flexible display screens follows on from research into communicating clothes carried out over recent years by France Telecom's R&D teams.
It marks a new stage in the technology's development: much more than an illustration of a concept, the current prototype can be considered a commercially exploitable innovation and France telecom is aiming for commercial production in the near future
The electronic components (including LEDs) have been soldered on a flexible circuit board and then packaged in a fabric layered sandwich. This offers an optimised display rendering while maintaining a very good flexibility and a comfortable yet resistant textile feeling.
Compared with the optical fibre screens developed by the same team of researchers (and awarded the prize for innovation at the 2002 Avantex textile trade show), the display screen is lighter, has a colour display and is easier to integrate into clothing because it is small (10cm by 7cm) and light (approximately 50 grams, in addition to a battery weighing approximately 100 grams). The removable screen is inserted in a special pocket in the garment. It is easy to use and connected to a rechargeable battery with a 4-hour charge life.
Apart from the consumer appeal, there are many possible applications for this technology in the professional event marketing and communications sectors (the staff coordinating events could display real-time information for the visitors) or in advertising, public safety, etc.
Market trials began in Paris in early July (2004) to confirm the advantages of the functionalities offered and discover new applications.
In the mean time, France Telecom's R&D teams are continuing to explore the nascent communicating clothes market, concluding market research studies and finalising an appropriate economic model with a view to launching commercial production of the existing prototypes in the near future.
Even today, they are working towards future generations of the new screen, and in particular its compatibility with a large percentage of mobile phones.