Researchers at MIT and in Sweden have invented a novel type of fibre that may be used to make clothing that detects how much it is being extended or compressed and then offers immediate haptic input in the form of pressure, lateral expansion, or vibration. Such textiles, according to the scientists, might be used in garments that help singers or sportsmen improve their respiratory control, or that help people recovering from disease or operation regain control of their breathing techniques.

A liquid channel in the core of the multilayered fibres can be actuated by a fluidic system. The geometry of the fibres is controlled by this system by pressurising and releasing a fluid medium, such as compressed air or water, into the channel, allowing the fibre to function as a synthetic muscle. The fibres also have stretchy sensors to detect and evaluate the degree of bending. The composite fibres that arise are relatively thin enough being sewed, woven, or stitched on conventional commercial equipment. The fibres, dubbed OmniFibers, will be introduced this week at the Association for Data processing Machinery’s User Interface Software and Technology online conference in a paper co-authored by Ozgun Kilic Afsar, a visiting doctoral student and research affiliate at MIT; Hiroshi Ishii, the Jerome B. Wiesner Professor of Media Arts and Sciences; and eight others from the MIT Media Lab, Uppsala University, and KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden.

A number of essential elements distinguish the new fibre architecture. Because of its incredibly thin dimension and utilisation of low-cost materials, it is quite simple to organise the fibres into a variety of fabric forms. It is also skin-friendly, as its outer layer is made of a substance similar to conventional polyester. Furthermore, its quick response time, as well as the strength and range of forces it can transmit, enable a rapid feedback system for training or distant interactions employing haptics (based on the sense of touch). According to Afsar, the flaws of most new muscle fibres are that they are either thermally actuated, which might cause overheating when in touch with human skin, or they have low wattage efficiency or difficult training methods. According to her, these systems frequently have slow reaction and recovery times, restricting its instant applicability in applications that require quick feedback.

The soft fibre composite, which replicates a strand of yarn, is composed of five layers: an innermost fluid channel, a silicone-based elastomeric tube to contain the working fluid, a soft stretchable sensor that detects strain as a change in electrical resistance, a braided polymer stretchable outer mesh that controls the fiber’s outer dimensions, and a non stretchy fibres that gives a mechanical limitation on overall expandability.