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Wear your heart on your sleeve

For those times when a Facebook 'poke' just isn’t enough, you will soon be able to send your friends a hug they can actually feel.

Devised by wearable technology company CuteCircuit, the Hug Shirt looks like a normal top but is embedded with sensors and actuators which can record and reproduce the sensation of human touch.

‘Suppose I wanted to send you a hug, I would hug my own shirt and the shirt would record that using special textile sensors,’ explains Ryan Genz, co-founder of CuteCircuit. The virtual hug can then be transferred onto a phone using Bluetooth and sent to another Hug Shirt wearer. The actuators in their garment heat up and vibrate to recreate the original embrace. ‘It’s recorded like a movie, so if you were to move your hands around different areas, that pattern would be repeated,’ comments Genz.

Other designs dreamt up by CuteCircuit include a dress that changes colour and shape as its wearer moves and a hoodie which acts as an mp3 player. According to Dr Sharon Baurley, Reader in fashion and electronic textiles at Central Saint Martins College, this type of wearable technology could dramatically alter the way we dress in years to come.

Customisable clothing offers a whole new means of communication to wearers, with the potential to generate new ‘languages’ in a similar way to how text messaging gave birth to its own lingo. ‘If you have a garment that’s dynamically changeable, then the potential is huge for authorship and invention and expression,’ says Baurley.

Living up to the hype

While there has been talk of intelligent textiles and wearable technology for years, they have yet to become part of our everyday lives. But that could all change very quickly. ‘It’s going to require quite a mind leap for people – but it just takes that one entry point so that they go ‘yeah, actually that’s not so weird,’’ suggests Baurley.

As Genz puts it, wearable technology has yet to produce its equivalent of the iPod – a device which radically changed the way people listened to music. Where might such an invention crop up? Baurley recommends keeping an eye on healthcare, gaming or mobile technology for the breakthrough innovation that may tip the balance.

Although initially intended simply as a conceptual piece, the Hug Shirt has already attracted plenty of attention. Once the public had set eyes upon it, its potential as a commercial product became obvious. ‘The response from consumers has been overwhelming – we get emails every single day from people that want it,’ says Genz.

He believes the Hug Shirt’s appeal lies it in its unique ability to transmit a sense of touch: ‘Any kind of media can be sent nowadays, except for something like a hug. I think people really miss that aspect of communication.’

The Hug Shirt could be just the first piece of wearable technology to find its way into our homes when it hits the shelves in 2009. But while it may prove popular with those in long distance relationships, even Genz readily admits: ‘nothing can replace a real hug’.

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See the Hug Shirt and other wearable technology tried and tested on the Gadget Show.

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