Near-field communication (NFC) powers contactless keycards and payment systems such as Google Wallet and Apple Pay, allowing users to speed through checkout lines and open doors without pulling out keys or pressing buttons. A team of researchers at the University of California, Irvine have developed a “body area network-enabling” that integrates flexible NFC technology into a new smart fabric

Garments made from such fabric have an increased transmission distance and could expand the range of applications for NFC technology. The device allows for battery-free communication between smart garments and nearby electronic readers. Unlike standard NFC devices like smartphones and key fobs that must come within a few inches of the reader, the new fabric can transmit data at distances of four feet or more.

In the journal Nature Electronics, the UCI researchers describe how they boosted the fabric’s NFC range by using metamaterials built from arrays of magneto-inductive copper and aluminum. Similar to a railway system crisscrossing the garment, the flexible technology enables long-distance communication between multiple devices via magneto-inductive waves. 

The flexibility of this network increases its durability under the stress of body motion and allows for easy modification. Affordable and easy to fabricate, branches of the metamaterial “rails” can be added to existing clothing through a simple heat-pressing process. The network also enables communication between separate garments. For example, an athletic shirt tracing heart rate and respiration could coordinate with a pair of pants that track leg movements.

Potential healthcare applications for body area network-enabled garments include hospital gowns that record and transmit patient vital signs to healthcare staff. This would eliminate the need for multiple types of sensors, making patients more comfortable, reducing errors due to faulty placement or sensor failure, and freeing up time for busy nurses and caregivers.