Monday, April 16, 2012

Wearable photonics you can create and live by

Featured in our April issue of Laser Focus World is an article from Philips Research (Eindhoven, The Netherlands) entitled "WEARABLE PHOTONICS: Smart photonic textiles begin to weave their magic" that shows, among other fiber-optic and photonic-based textile styles, Black Eyed Peas singer Fergie wearing an illuminating jumpsuit.

FIGURE: Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas wows in an illuminating jumpsuit. (Courtesy Studio XO)

So what's next beyond temporary, short-lived glow-in-the-dark fashions? The evidence points to wearable photonics that illuminate for long periods of time and offer unique and one-of-a-kind design capabilities, thanks to the advent of organic light-emitting diode (OLED) and other flexible display technologies that can be woven into (or somehow incorporated) into wearable fabrics.

Case in point is a new stretchable optoelectronic panel from researchers at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). The stretchable polymer OLED device uses carbon nanotubes as the conductor and can be reversibly stretched by up to 50% strain without damage. The polymer light-emitting electrochemical cells (PLECs) were spin-cast on glass, laminated, and then peeled off. The blue emissive fluorene luminescent layer was sandwiched between two single-walled carbon-nanotube polymer electrodes. The sky-blue device has shape-memory capability and maintains stretchability for wearable photonic applications.

And just when you thought wearable photonics was limited to what designers hand you, how about a Lazer Shirt that lets you design your own glowing message or custom work of art?

VIDEO: How to create wearable art with the Lazer Shirt. (Courtesy Lazer Shirts)

Here is how the Lazer Shirt is described on the thinkgeek website: "Lazer Shirts are interactive white t-shirts that let you design your own creation with the power of UV light. Simply touch the ultraviolet Lazer to the shirt, press the button, and draw or write whatever you want. Step into the darkness and your shirt will glow, displaying your creative genius. When the design finally fades, you can use your UV light to draw something totally new. And even though your Lazer Shirt is magical, you can still toss it in the washing machine like every other t-shirt." The secret to Lazer Shirt is probably a UV-to-visible phosphor, although I was unable to find out exactly how it works.

Personally, I don't think I’ll be ordering a Lazer Shirt anytime soon. While fashion may be somewhat important to me, I'd rather see an increase in research activity surrounding the use of wearable photonics in soldier suits or medical monitoring applications. Embedded sensors that monitor heart rate, blood flow, and even monitor wound-healing progress while automatically (and wirelessly) reporting data back to a remote station seem like a much more admirable use of "wearable photonics". Fortunately, programs such as OFSETH, or Optical Fiber Sensors Embedded into technical Textile for Healthcare monitoring, is an EU-funded project that weaves sensors--based on Fiber Bragg gratings (FBGs), optical-time domain reflectometry, and macrobending effects--for patients undergoing magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to monitor spontaneous respiration, which is constantly at risk of being impaired by anesthetic drugs or upper-airway obstruction.

There is also research at Eindhoven University of Technology on smart jackets for neonatal monitoring that use a combination of photonics such as reflectance pulse oximeters and embedded optical fibers. I have no doubt that these wearable photonics will save lives and improve healthcare for the next generation--photonics we can live by!

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