June 3 (UPI) -- Engineers have developed the world's first digital fiber, capable of capturing, storing and analyzing a variety of data.
The breakthrough technology, detailed Thursday in the journal Nature Communications, could be paired with machine learning algorithms and used to make smart fabrics to record health data and aid medical diagnosis.
"This work presents the first realization of a fabric with the ability to store and process data digitally, adding a new information content dimension to textiles and allowing fabrics to be programmed literally," Yoel Fink, a professor of material sciences and electrical engineering at MIT, told MIT News.
Until now, electronic fibers were analog, carrying a constant electric current. The new digital fiber carries distinct bits of information in the forms of 0s and 1s, just like a computer.
Engineers created the fiber by placing hundreds of tiny digital chips made of silicon into what's called a fiber preform. The polymer resin is then carefully introduced to form the fiber itself.
The precise process allowed scientists to created an uninterrupted connection between hundreds of digital chips. The resulting fiber is thin and flexible, and can be easily introduced to textiles.
"When you put it into a shirt, you can't feel it at all," said co-author Gabriel Loke, a doctoral student at MIT. "You wouldn't know it was there."
To showcase the technology's abilities, researchers used the fiber to store digital information, including a short movie.
Because the fiber could be used to capture environmental data, in addition to physiological data, researchers suggest the technology's potential can extend far beyond medical diagnostics.
To demonstrate the technology's potential, researchers sewed it into the armpit of a shirt and recorded body surface temperature data while wearers engaged in a variety of activities.
Scientists then trained a machine-learning algorithm to recognize relationships between temperature patterns and different activities.
When redeployed, the fiber and artificial intelligence system were able to accurately guess what a wearer was doing.
Researchers suggest the fiber could prove invaluable to sports scientists and investigations of physical performance.
"This type of fabric could give quantity and quality open-source data for extracting out new body patterns that we did not know about before," Loke said.