Alix Paultre, Editorial Director, PSD
People have been wearing clothes almost since we began walking erect, and one thing we’ve learned over the millennia in our evolution in both ourselves and in our habiliments is that people have funky, dirty bodies. We have been strapping technology about ourselves and stuffing tools and devices into our clothes for a long time. In fact, a great deal of the clothing we wear today carries fashion hints from when it was purpose-built for some specific functionality. The problem is the human body can be a hostile environment.
The big problem (some would say our greatest gift) is that we are animals. Animals are biological systems, and biological systems use ablative processes for surface maintenance. In addition, for thermal management and lubrication biological systems exude a variety of liquids. In other words, to maintain our skin we shed it constantly and sweat a lot, among other things. Human skin is an abrasive as lethal as a rat’s incisors over time, and sweat is an insane corrosive that has damaged materials from silk to steel.
From worn stone balustrades in cathedrals to computer keys with no faces, the evidence of the deterioration of surfaces due to the human touch is all around us, and if it weren’t for people like Thomas Jennings (the first African American to receive a patent, BTW) who created the various ways to clean clothes without water or soap (he invented a dry-cleaning process called "dry scouring", and used the money to buy his family’s freedom) we’d still be severely restricted in the materials and fashions we could conveniently wear.
None of this bodes well for today’s electronic devices. From smartphones carried in hot sweaty pockets to implantable medical devices, anything touching the human body must take into account our dirty, sweaty bodies. Environmental issues such as humidity, shock, and vibration must be a consideration in every electronic device intended for intimate human use. (I won’t even think about the number of people who use their smart device on the toilet, and those related hygiene issues.
Handheld electronics are pretty mature in this sense; the first few generations of cell phones taught everyone about the importance of ruggedness and durability in a portable personal device. Then again, people have been taking technologies as delicate as watch movements and vinyl record players putting them in rugged boxes for centuries. I have an old 1935 Weston Analyzer on my shelf, and if I could find batteries that would fit it the test device would still work today.
The biggest issues are in the area of wearable and semi-implantable devices. Anything held close against the human body for any length of time must address cleanliness and hygiene issues, and that includes things like straps and harnesses. Clothes get dirty remarkably fast, and need to be cleaned thoroughly and relatively often. That fact will not change for wearable tech. Who will open the first e-clothing Laundromat?