Researchers from the Interactive Media Lab (Dresden), and a host of other technical institutes, have designed a rapid iron-on user interface platform that applies smart textiles and flexible electronics directly onto fabric, giving them custom interactive functionalities. Most current methods of incorporating digital functionalities into textiles require the use of yarns or thread to tie in rigid or flexible electronics, and while those approaches provide a high degree of incorporation, the machines used in the textile industry aren’t readily accessible by makers and designers.
To make rapid prototyping of textile user interfaces readily available to anyone, the scientists developed a handheld dispenser for directly applying different functional tapes of required lengths and patches to most textiles and fabrics. Known as the Rapid Iron-On (RIO), the device enables users to ‘sketch’ custom-shaped I/O modules, complex circuits, and commodity textile surfaces using a variety of continuous tapes and patches comprised of a heat-activated adhesive.
The RIO was built using a pair of wheeled axels that hold the spool material, along with a pair of spring-loaded posts and a soldering iron with a flat metal base. Moving the device in any direction will dispense the tape, while pushing down on the spring-loaded iron melts the adhesive, anchoring the circuit in place. The RIO is outfitted with a small actuated blade for cutting the desired length of a tape needed for any given project. Users can also combine different tapes, including piezoelectric, conductive, resistive, and more, on the same spool for custom applications.
The RIO can be used to made different circuit designs that can utilize various inputs, including touch, slide, bend, identify, and sense, along with various outputs, such as visual, haptic, and shape-changing. To demonstrate what the RIO is capable of, the researchers created a smart cuff with a four-way button that could control slide presentations for business meetings, and an RFID integrated into a smart coat that allows medical professionals to access secure locations. They even came up with an interactive messenger bag that activates internal lighting when opened, capacitive buttons and slider for controlling a music player, and a moisture sensor at the bottom for detecting leaks.