Woman in dress that wrinkles when air quality is poor.I’m sure it’s difficult for Hall Pass readers to believe that the debonair, well-dressed Dean they see today was not always so sophisticated in his appearance. Indeed, when my two daughters were in junior high school and high school, they felt the need to perform morning spot checks on me prior to my leaving the house. They lovingly referred to this as the “dorky dad” evaluation. They wanted to ensure that I didn’t embarrass them by looking “dorky.”

Those moments came to mind recently as I read an article about emerging smart clothing – clothing that contains embedded sensors, wireless communications devices, and even computational capability. At one time, “smart clothes” referred to clothes that made the wearer look sophisticated. People would remark, “You look smart,” or “Looking sharp!” Now the term “smart clothes” has an entirely different meaning.

A wide variety of smart clothes are emerging:

  • Motion-detecting pants – Researchers at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Virginia, have developed pants that detect movement and send information to a computer to monitor a wearer’s movements. The goal is to assist in monitoring someone with a chronic illness such as heart disease.
  • Proximity-sensing shirts – Shirts are available from the online Think Geek store that feature sensors to determine if someone nearby is wearing a shirt with the same design. The shirt then “tracks” the other wearer. I’m not sure of the intent of this –whether so “birds of a feather” can meet, or so they can avoid each other!
  • Acid rain-detecting dress – The cabbage-dyed “Rain Palette” dress by Dahea Sun employs water-soluble pigments that react to air quality and can show the public acid levels of rain at a glance. Wearers can use a smartphone app to scan and upload color changes to a cloud-based database, showing air quality trends on a global scale.
  • Heart-sensing bra – The Numatrex heart sensing bra monitors the wearer’s heart rate and transmits the information to a watch worn on their wrist.
  • Nike + smart running shoes – Nike manufactures shoes that transmit information about your movements and running to an external laptop or iPad. The information can also be sent via tweets and updates to your status on Facebook.
  • Smart diapers – The company Pixie Scientific has created a smart diaper to help sleep-deprived parents monitor their baby’s health. The diaper contains sensors and processing capability to analyze urine to assess potential abnormalities such as urinary track infections, dehydration, kidney function failures, and Type 1 diabetes.

In October of this year, the Cornell Institute of Fashion and Fiber Innovation (CIFFI) hosted a meeting of clothing designers, textile scientists, and business leaders in Manhattan’s Garment District to discuss how to create and market clothes that monitor a wearer’s vital signs and his or her surroundings for the presence of harmful pollutants and bacteria.

This is certainly just the beginning of such applications. One can easily envision clothing designed to be worn by elderly people in assisted living facilities, or special gowns worn by patients in hospitals, or even “designer” smart clothes that monitor a wearer’s vital signs and display selected responses visually – a kind of sophisticated, full-body “mood ring.”

Such applications raise many questions such as:

  • How can one design a human computer interface for an entire body interface?
  • What is the legality of collecting and disseminating such data? For example, could an assisted living facility be sued based on a subpoena for historical vital sign data from a patient?
  • How should issues of accuracy in the embedded sensors and pattern recognition algorithms be addressed?
  • What are the risks of “false alarms” reported by smart clothes?

Unlike traditional disciplines that are suitable for addressing narrow aspects of emerging technologies, the College of Information Sciences and Technology provides a rich, multi-discipline community — comprised of faculty with expertise in computer science, electrical engineering, psychology, sociology, law, medical applications, and many other areas — that fosters a collaborative approach to examining questions like these.

For example, Dr. Heng Xu studies issues of cyber security, privacy, and trust, and has been a fashion model and designer. She earned a certificate in fashion design from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore. Another IST faculty member, Dr. Erika Poole, studies information technologies, such as collaboration and gaming technologies for improving health and wellness. Erika is also a certified physical trainer. A third IST faculty member, Dr. Frank Ritter, has developed an app that helps monitor an individual’s caffeine intake and levels.

These evolving applications and associated research are making their way into the classroom. In a mobile apps class taught this fall by Dr. Jim Jansen, IST students worked in collaboration with students from a bio-behavioral health class on a project to design new apps for mobile devices to improve health and wellness. The teams then pitched their ideas, addressing issues of target population or “audience,” app design, and potential impact on health, in a competition held during Penn State’s Global Entrepreneurship Week. I had the privilege of serving as one of the judges for the competition, and I am pleased to share that all of the teams did an outstanding job!

All of this speaks to the intellectual diversity in IST and our willingness to address rapidly evolving information technology applications. I am confident our college will continue to be a leader in researching the impact and implications of emerging technologies. My confidence on a personal level, however, just took a hit – I just received an e-mail from my youngest daughter. The subject line reads, “Dorky Dean.”


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