At this year's British Science Festival  the Daphne Oram Award Lecture for Digital Innovation was awarded to Rebecca Stewart for her talk on e-textiles. Here, Alan Barker gives us the low down on Dr Stewart's research and the potential of combining technology with fabric.

It’s all about convergence.

When mathematician Ada Lovelace was looking for a way to programme Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, she turned to an existing information storage technology: the punch cards on a Jacquard loom. Now, Dr Rebecca Stewart of Queen Mary University of London, is one of a community of scientists seeking to extend that connection between computing and weaving. In the Daphne Oram Award Lecture on Tuesday, Rebecca shared her insights into this rapidly developing field.

Babbage’s engine could probably never have worked: he lacked the technology to implement the coding in the punch cards effectively. Mechanical engineering had to give way to electronics for computing to take the next step. Now, the challenge is in reverse: how to create a technology that could itself produce computable code.

Weaving goes back millennia. The technique – running the warp at right angles above or below the weft – involves exactly the same kind of binary choice that underlies computing. The coding of the weaving generates the fabric; the more sophisticated the coding, the more wonderfully complex the pattern in the fabric. you generate the wonderful complexity of patterned fabrics.

Until recently, threads were vegetable (cotton or bamboo, for example), animal (wool) or synthetic (Rebecca is especially interested in Kevlar). Each material has its own useful properties; but to develop an e-textile, what’s needed is a material that can change its properties.

Enter the conductive thread. Wrap or roll a conductive metal like silver or steel around a conventional fibre and you create a thread that can detect electricity. Once more, the ancients were there before us, using metal to make thread sparkle and shine. Add electricity, and these threads can produce fabrics that are touch-sensitive or able to detect the proximity of a substance with capacitance. Just as the screen of your mobile phone responds to the movements of your fingers, so an e-textile ‘knows’ where you are touching it, or even approaching it.

Rebecca sees huge and diverse potential in these materials. And her enthusiasm is infectious. She’s working with dance companies to create pieces that combine choreography and live coding. She is intrigued by the possibility of a heat-sensitive bandage that could alert doctors to the possibility of infection without exposing the wound. And, perhaps most excitingly, she has awakened an interest in electronics among children who might not otherwise have taken notice, by changing the tools from soldering irons to needle and thread.

The challenge is scaling up. How to create these fabrics industrially and produce products of sufficient quality? Metal acts very differently to cotton or wool when it’s woven. Part of the answer is to find another, retrospective convergence: to manufacture new e-threads that can be woven on conventional looms. Google and Levi’s have teamed up to create Project Jacquard (named after the revolutionary loom that started it all off). But Rebecca, unsurprisingly, is a little sniffy about the rather limited applications that the project has so far generated. Check Twitter on your sleeve? We can do better, she thinks. She recognizes the importance of the profit motive in developing the new technology (as was Jacquard himself); but she’s also impatient to hand the technology to designers and artists, who can dream new, as yet unimagined applications.

One research team is now seeking to insert nanotransistors into the thread itself. Maybe, one day, digitally controlled Jacquard looms will be weaving wearable computers. And my guess is that Dr Rebecca Stewart might just create the first one.

Alan Barker, British Science Festival Swansea, September 2016. Alan Barker is a writer and training consultant specialising in communication skills.  He is Managing Director of Kairos Training Limited.