Researchers at MIT partnered with the Rhode Island School of Design to create a fabric that can hear. While this may seem odd or even invasive, it has remarkable implications across many fields, including medical devices. A shirt could record the heartbeat of someone with cardiac issues. Or help a person who is hard of hearing or blind better navigate the world.
The fiber is piezoelectric, meaning it creates an electric signal when bent. That includes drastic movements like pressing on the material but also tiny ones from sound waves. Piezoelectricity is used in sonars, electronic drum sets, medical imaging, and buzzers like those used on Jeopardy. The energy can even be stored and redistributed, like Black Panther’s Vibranium suit.
The prestigious journal Nature published the peer-reviewed study. The team of chemists, engineers, materials scientists, and fashion designers created the fiber and put it through a lot of acoustic trials. They also tested its durability. After all, functional clothes have to stand up to washing machine cycles and body movements.
In a delightful series of videos in the supplemental information, the researchers show their work in action. By talking to a shirt. And then having one shirt talk to another shirt. A researcher makes a variety of sounds, which send vibrations to the shirt. The movement of the fiber creates a proportional electric current.
The fiber can also create sound. They sent a recording via electric current, which the fiber converted to audible vibrations. A second piece of fabric then picks up the audible vibrations. Another exciting feature is that the fiber can detect the direction of the sound.
The researchers anticipate a variety of applications. They propose using the fibers to weave a smart fishing net that could monitor underwater sound. Additional uses for the material could be spacecraft and building materials to listen for unexpected stress.
The press release doesn’t mention any potential superhero applications, but fabrics that can detect the direction of sound or convert electric current into sound could certainly be useful to Daredevil and Makkari. We’re one step closer to super suits that enhance human abilities, but are still machine washable. Edna Mode would be proud.