'Smart' fabric to promote Nova Scotia Business

NSCAD University textiles professor Robin Muller checks out some of the fabric used to make smart textiles.

Window shades that change colour. Ceilings that turn yellow as it gets warmer, blue as it gets colder. Clothing that can monitor your heart rate and blood sugar level.
Smart textiles are changing the fabrics used in everyday life, and Robin Muller is part of a team looking to further their development.

"Smart textiles are just textiles that have properties beyond just covering the body," says the textiles professor at NSCAD University. A smart textile is any fabric that moves or illuminates in response to electronics or computers.

Muller, 54, also runs the @rchitextile lab, located next to NSCAD's campus at the Halifax Seaport. Along with a team of more than 10 - including students, engineers and lab co-head Dr. Sarah Bonnemaison - she has been developing fabrics that can change respond when heated, moved or touched.

Muller said the lab was developing textiles with architectural applications, which is Bonnemaison's specialty. They are straying from the trend by many companies worldwide of developing smart textiles for fashion or health reasons. (Electronics company Philips, for example, in late 2006 released T-shirts, jackets and other clothing that light up).

"We're trying to do things for the built environment, for the home or for the workplace," she said. "We hope that we'll take it beyond novelty, that we'll be useful."
Bonnemaison, 51, said they also looking to create fabrics such as walls that automatically heat up when it a room is too cold, or create window shades that automatically lower when too much sunlight is sensed.

"In this project, we're trying to animate the surfaces, and make them responsive, bring some intelligence to them," said the architecture professor at Dalhousie University.
One of the lab's developments is a tent that can subtly change colour as the temperature increases inside. Muller said the project would be especially useful for touch industries, such as yoga and massages.
She remembers trips to physiotherapy where the walls have been boring and not conducive to relaxation. Having the walls change colour would add just another interesting and relaxing element to the environment, she said.

The lab is also working on a project for musical or dance performances, said Bonnemaison - stages that respond to movement and sound, backgrounds easy to set-up and are lightweight and portable. She said they'd be important for groups on tour.

The @rchitextile lab has been working on the $1.4-million project for about a year and a half. Muller said she was inspired by her students, who learned about smart textiles and convinced her to research the topic more. The lab received more than $1 million from the Atlantic Canada Opportunity Agency's Atlantic Innovation Fund, one of the few federal research grants NSCAD has ever received.

While they won't be able to mass-produce these textiles - countries such as China or the U.S. dominate manufacturing - they could focus on the research aspect of architectural smart textiles, and sell the plans to larger companies for development, said Muller.

Bonnemaison said that there are few companies developing smart textiles in building fabrics, leaving an opportunity to successfully create jobs in Nova Scotia.
"This will be great for Nova Scotia; there are a lot of creative people here." Muller said. "And it will help bring (NSCAD) into the 21st century."

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