04 June 2021

Programmable threads

Engineers create a "smart" digital fiber with data storage

Tatiana Matveeva, "Scientific Russia"

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT, USA) have created the first fiber for fabrics with digital capabilities capable of recognizing, storing, analyzing bio-data, as well as determining user activity through a trained neural network program. With its help, it is possible to monitor physical performance, the state of human health, as well as diagnose diseases in the early stages, the MIT press service reports. Scientists describe the features of digital fiber in the journal Nature Communications (Loke et al., Digital electronics in fibers enable fabric-based machine-learning inference – VM).


Until now, electronic fibers have been analog– transmitting a continuous electrical signal – rather than digital, where discrete bits of information can be encoded and processed in a binary system. The new fiber literally allows you to program fabrics.

To get the fiber, engineers put hundreds of square silicon chips into a preform. By precisely controlling the polymer flow, the researchers were able to create a fiber with a continuous electrical connection between the chips for tens of meters.


The fiber itself is thin and flexible, it can be passed through a needle, sewn into a fabric and washed at least 10 times – and it will not collapse. At the same time, a person who puts on a shirt with such a fiber will not feel it. The individual elements that are inside the "smart" threads can be controlled from one point at the end of the fiber: you can turn on some elements and turn off others depending on the task. 

Digital fiber can also store a lot of information in memory. The researchers were able to record, store and read information about the fiber, including a 767-kilobit full-color short video file and a 0.48-megabyte music file. Files can be stored for two months without power.

Also, a neural network of 1650 connections is "sewn" inside the fiber. Having sewn it to the armpit of the shirt, the researchers used fiber to collect 270 minutes of data on the body surface temperature of a person wearing a "digital shirt" and analyze how these data correlate with various physical activities. Trained on this data, the optical fiber was able to determine with 96 percent accuracy what the person wearing it is doing.

Thanks to this analytical ability, fibers will someday be able to detect and warn people in real time about health changes - for example, about a decrease in respiratory rate or an irregular heartbeat, or transmit data about muscle activation or heart rate to athletes during training.

The fiber is controlled by a small external device, so the next step will be to develop a new chip as a microcontroller that can be connected to the fiber itself.

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