Please tell us about yourself
Nearly all new cars are computerized in some fashion. Cellphones, of course, are now more than just appliances for calls, but rather devices that facilitate and generate 21st-century communication, be that through social media, email, news, or text messaging. Industries that were based on the physical production and palpable digestion of information and data, like newspapers and libraries, are now digitized and channeled through electronics. As the world becomes more and more linked together through these networks, how do industries that remain relatively unchanged in their product manufacturing and product use adapt to the computer age?
For Raj Bhakta, a PhD student at North Carolina State University, textiles may provide the next conduit for a new form of technology through data processing and exchange with their surrounding environment. Bhakta does research on smart clothing and electronic textiles, where he studies the effects of fiber optics and electronics that are embedded or printed onto textiles. Such “smart” textiles have a range of promising uses: gathering data of vital signs for hospital patients, monitoring individuals working with hazardous materials, and even re-imagining fashion and apparel as living and dynamic extensions of the body.
What did you study?
I did my Bachelor of Science (BS) (Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Physics) from The University of Texas at Austin and Ph.D (Textiles Engineering | Fiber & Polymer Science) from North Carolina State University
Liam Casey: Smart clothing and electronic textiles are relatively new technologies that are just beginning to broach the surface. How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?
Raj Bhakta: I actually never knew there was something like ‘smart textiles’ or ‘electronic textiles’ until I came to NC State. I have a physics and nuclear engineering background so initially came to study that at NC State. During my short time in nuclear engineering, I was coming up with ideas for self-powered wearable devices for radiation monitoring targeted for radiologists, patients, nuclear workers, and eventually for space travel. That idea spurred me on a path to find a new place where I can exercise my inventorship, creativity, and entrepreneurship through the lens of science and engineering. I found myself in the ASSIST Self-Powered Wearables Research Center and NC State College of Textiles. I instantly fell in love with the idea of integrating electronics into textiles, given the immense potential for changing the function and value of a material that really hasn’t changed that much in centuries. If I could make sensors cheap enough on textiles that someone in the emerging world can afford and use, that can spur humanity towards a path of preventative medicine. The vision behind this was immensely motivating and I truly believe there is a lot of value in creating not only new technology but new art through the fusion of electronics and textiles. A good example is the ‘Pulse’ dress that our research group worked on which pulses LEDs intertwined into a formal dress based on your heart rate.
I like to question: what if your clothing could change colors based on your emotions? What if your clothing constantly tracks your physiology and can tell you if you’re going to be sick soon? What if you could 3D print your clothing with your own branding? Heck, what if you could change your clothing like you change your software? I believe this is a future I want to be a part of and it excites me that I have the opportunity to contribute to some of this exponential technological change!
LC: At North Carolina State University, you are a graduate research assistant at Nano-Extended Textiles (NEXT), which seeks to integrate electronics into fibers and fabrics. With your work, do you envision wearable technologies and smart textiles to be easily commodified and to revolutionize every aspect of textile application? Or more as niche technology geared towards health markets and/or innovative fashion?
RB: This is a great question because it hits on the fundamental operational principles of the textiles and wearables markets. Both are becoming increasingly commodified, as you can see with Fitbit and the other wrist-worn devices being released into the market. This is great from a consumer-facing side where you as a consumer have many choices and brands to buy from. However, with all sensors technologies, commodification is the eventual route and the only differentiating value proposition becomes the actionable insights you can deliver from the data but eventually that can become commodified as well. I liken the evolution of the wearables industry to that of the apparel industry, where there are many brands with the same basic offerings (clothing), just packaged in either a different look or different user experience.
Textiles industry is already commodified in that respect with it being a low-margin industry where profits are made up on volume sales (in most cases). As the technology and manufacturing costs of making electronic and smart textile products comes down, the scale will increase. A lot of big brands like Nike, UnderArmour, and Adidas are waiting for this to happen. So it’s just a matter of time till we’ll be able to buy a compression shirt that looks and feels like a compression shirt but has sensors in it like your Fitbit does, all at an affordable price range (less than $100).
To your point, I envision a commodification when it reaches the mass consumer for sports applications. In the interim, I see a more compelling value proposition for healthcare applications where there’s an inherent need to solve a problem. Fitness products are more of a ‘nice-to-have’, which is why you see many companies come and go in the wearable technology space. However, there are macroeconomic trends taking place right now that serve to well-position the wearable technology and eventually electronic textiles space so I’m pretty optimistic that this is going to happen. The smartphone was around before Apple released the iphone. After the iphone was released the smartphone market exponentially increased in value. This is how technology works and you will see it time and time again happening in various spaces.
I also believe there’s a huge unmet opportunity in the fashion space. I’ve talked to many fashion designers and there are mixed opinions about how technology can be used to augment or disrupt the traditional notion of fashion. People get scared when they think of ‘clothing that changes color based on their emotion’ but I believe something like that is just another natural evolution in allowing clothing to facilitate another layer of social interaction. To think of us posting 140 character versions of our thoughts (Twitter), creating fluid collages of our life moments (Instagram), or of sending real-time pictures and 8 second videos that get deleted, would have been crazy 20 years ago. In the same respect, it sounds crazy to think that we will be creating new paradigms of fashion when both merge, but the technology is definitely there and there’s a small community of early adopters and designers/engineers that are exploring the possibilities. And if you see what’s happened with the fashion retail space with the ‘retail apocalypse’, it’s only going to become exacerbated as consumption of clothing shifts to other areas of the greater fashion industry, especially in terms of lifestyle experiences.