IN the lead-up to the millennium, scientists and retailers alike promised to revolutionise our wardrobes with "smart" clothing that would do everything from deliver a massage and improve your golf swing to change colour according to the weather.

IT research house IDC even estimated that the market for wearable computer systems would be worth £360m by 2003. The British shopping reality - three years into the 21st century - however, is slightly less glamorous. Futuristic fashion on the high street is far more likely to come in the form of a pendant-shaped mobile phone, a machine-washable business suit from Marks & Spencer or a T-shirt laced with mosquito repellant.

Even a newly unveiled handbag light - designed to illuminate the most shadowy depths when a purse is opened - is at least another year away from hitting the shops, according to its German inventors.

Yet research into more fantastical endeavours continues apace. Scientists, retailers and fashion designers around the world are racing to deliver their future vision of haute couture. So just how far are we from wearing "smart" clothes?

Philips Labs, at Redhill in Surrey, are currently designing clothes that keep you warm in the cold and cool in the heat by responding to the bodyís shivering. Experts at the Sensory Design Lab in London are in the early stages of developing clothing that will radiate smells to reflect human desires. A slinky dress, for example, might release pheromones at the appropriate moment. Another project at the renowned Central Saint Martins Innovation Centre in London is integrating electronics into fabrics that would allow consumers to customise their clothing by downloading different patterns or colours. The garment would act like a display in the same way as a computer screen.

Over in the States the American government is backing a project to create smart uniforms capable of changing colour to blend with the environment. And the Massachussets Institute of Technology has a whole department devoted to "wearable" technology. One of its most recent garments is the Puddlejumper jacket.

Designed by Elise Co, the Puddlejumper is a luminescent yellow-hooded jacket. Painted on its surface are several electroluminescent lamps wired to interior electronics. Water sensors are placed on the jacketís back and left sleeve. When it rains, the lamps light up, creating a flickering pattern that mirrors the pitter-patter of rain. "Iíve always been interested in fashion," says Co. "At MIT, I started to feel very limited by general computer inputs like a keyboard and things that run on a screen. I started to get interested in things that were much more lightweight and smaller. I liked the idea of devices that could be in spaces that you could touch and pull and interact with in this very physical way.

"I am totally willing to place technology on my body," she admits. "I see technology as being very enabling, and for me it is an expressive medium. Because of cell phones and Walkmans, people are used to having small devices near their head, and that is opening people up to having technology around their body."

Scotlandís own contribution to the industry comes from the Heriot-Watt University School of Textiles and Design. Professor George Stylios has announced that his team are about a year away from trialling clothing that could ultimately save lives. They are working on a vest that will monitor a patientís heart rate, blood pressure and other vital signs and sound the alarm if it senses a problem. Tiny sensors printed on the fabric would allow doctors to monitor patients without having to keep them in hospital. The technology would transmit data to a doctorís computer or even the central hospital system. Eventually, the product could be used to warn firefighters that they are breathing in too much smoke or alert soldiers to chemical weapons in the environment.

"Itís inevitable these things will become mainstream," he says. "Weíre not talking big, bulky things that get in the way. They will be so small that you wonít even notice they are there. The sensors will be wireless, and the garments they are built into will be as comfortable and flexible as normal clothes.

"Weíre even working on building tiny solar cells into the clothes so they donít need batteries. We also hope to make the clothes plug-and-play, so as we develop new things the clothes can do, you can just add them in."

Sharon Baurley, a research fellow at the Central Saint Martins Innovation Centre, says that truly smart clothing of this kind will evenutally find its way into our wardrobes - and perhaps sooner than we think.

"The technology is not that far away. Levi and Philips produced outer apparel with MP3 technology, which was kind of a success, although they had some returns because of technical problems," she says. "Thereís a lot of talk and hype around it, part of which is to try to sink it into peopleís minds. But itís starting to permeate the high street. There are the telephones by Siemens in the form of pendants. I think itís going to take that route in at first."

It was during London Fashion Week in February that Siemens launched its pendant-like mobile phone device (£250) that can be worn around the neck or hooked on to clothes. Snowboard giant Burton also revealed it has collaborated with Apple on a jacket that allows riders to blast their favourite music while simultaneously racing down the slopes.

Levi Strauss and Philips Electronics introduced the first wearable electronics garment to consumers in the summer of 2000. The jacket incorporated a mobile phone, collar microphone, headphones and an MP3 player all connected by sewn-in specially-designed cables.

About 600 jackets were sold in Levi Straussí premium shops across Europe. The full kit retailed for around £800 each. But Levi discontinued the range. A company spokesman explains: "Levi is no longer pursuing an intelligent wear collection. The activity was successful but it wasnít something we committed to in the long term. It was effectively a marketing exercise. Itís good for the brand to be seen as doing new activity."

For now, futuristic fabrics seem to be making more commercial headway than electronic gizmos. Several internet companies sell dresses, shirts, caps, bras and boxer shorts impregnated with metals that reportedly keep out the high-frequency electromagnetic radiation some people believe causes cancer.

Meanwhile, Carnation Footcare, a pharmaceutical company based in Birmingham, has launched silver-lined socks it claims keep feet warm and smelling of roses. Pure silver, which coats the outside of the textile fibres, has natural thermodynamic properties that regulates the temperature within the shoe. At the same time, the precious metal kills bacteria and neutralises nasty odour-causing elements. The yarns used also allow for a greater amount of moisture to be drawn through the sock and evaporated.

The Silversock was originally designed to help a genetic skin disorder called Epidermolysis Bullosa. But company officials believe the socks (£5.99 a pair) will appeal to general consumers. A spokesperson says: "The socks are designed for everyday wear. The silver in the socks is permanent and will not brush off, wear off, or diminish in effectiveness over time. If the product does go onto the high street, it is likely that it will be available in pharmacies." Until then, shoppers will have to be satisfied with ordering by phone.

Another new development is micro-encapsulation, where capsules containing substances such as essential oils or deodorants are suspended between the fibres of a fabric.

The Japanese are leading the way. Underwear fabrics have been developed which help slimming by encapsulating caffeine, grapefruit, pepper, fennel and tarragon essential oils. Japanís Teijin Fibres has also developed deodorant-polyester, and Konaka is about to launch a pollen-resistant 100 per cent wool suit. However, Professor Stylios says smart clothing has so far failed to make a big splash on the high street because it is incredibly expensive to produce and not yet that comfortable to wear.

So scientists are struggling to create garments that seemlessly incorporate technology into the fabrics. Most wearable computers - like the Levi and Philips MP3 player jacket - have still involved cumbersome hardware. "People take the products back. You want to wash these things and the wires start coming off. The clothing isnít a hundred per cent there yet," Stylios explains.

The Heriot-Watt team aims to eliminate clunky wiring and create a product where miniature electronic sensors are actually woven into the fabric. The other challenge is to ensure that the skin is protected from all the hi-tech wizardry.

Prof Stylios is convinced that this kind of technology will make its debut in the medical arena. "We focused on healthcare because there is a huge demand from insurance companies, hospitals, doctors to give patients a better quality of life.

"If we were a commercial company, maybe we would do a gimmicky quick fix and put an MP3 player in a jacket. But to do it properly, you will need a lot of money. People are willing to spend money to save lives. As the technology becomes more mature, we will see it going into fashion.

"This technology isnít going to go away. In 20 or 30 years, computers, telephones, and televisions will become part of our intimate clothing."

Source: Scotsman.Com