Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Bringing Something New To The Cutting Table

The Thoth Radio Telescope in Algonquin Park

About ten years ago, one of my interlining suppliers showed me a new product they were developing. At the time there were concerns (principally in Europe, where this company was located) about the health effects of cellphone radiation. There are still such concerns, as reports continue to surface about exposure to wireless devices. This new product was meant to protect from such radiation. I, however, had another idea about it.

My mother may have taught me to sew, but my father taught me to be curious about things. An engineer at the National Research Council of Canada, my parents were living in the wilderness at the site of the Algonquin Radio Observatory around the time I was born. They moved to Ottawa where my father worked at their primary research campus and on family days I would go visit him at a wind tunnel or a wave tank or other such facility. To my very young self it seemed the coolest thing that my father got to do what seemed like playing giant games and push flashing buttons at work all day. So even though my artistic side won over my scientific side when it came to studies and career paths, I was still familiar with and highly curious about the inner and outer workings of things, and had a basic understanding of things like wireless signals and frequencies.

So when the supplier showed me his product, a cloth with a copper mesh woven into it, I asked him to go back to the lab in Germany to see if the size of the mesh were sufficient to block certain types of frequency. He later confirmed that it could so I explained my idea to him.

Merchants had been introducing mobile payment systems, the PayPass type of thing where you would wave a key fob near a reader on a gas pump or a credit card terminal and your payment information would be transmitted automatically. Powered by Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID, these key fobs and credit cards used the same technology as many remote car keys, enhanced drivers licenses, passports and security access cards. I knew that it was a fairly simple and inexpensive thing to build a skimmer which would allow a criminal to collect data from these devices merely by passing close to a person carrying one. David Beckham later made the news when his armor-plated BMW X-5 was stolen by thieves using a skimming device. It's become more and more common these days, as instructions for building skimmers are available on the internet, and some cel phones can also be used to surreptitiously collect this data.

My idea was that this new material, when properly applied, could be used to create a shielding pocket which would block RFID skimming. I suggested it to my boss at the time, but the RFID-enabled payment systems were still too new and he didn't get it. Over subsequent years I would bring it up again from time to time, usually to the same quizzical looks. Clothing people are not always the most technologically-savvy people. But now Apple Pay has entered the arena, and other mobile-payment technologies like LoopPay, and while the companies supplying these technologies tell us the data is encrypted and secure, the recent hacks at Target, Home Depot, and Neiman Marcus, etc. have shown that things may not be quite as secure and encrypted as they really should be. The only way to really be sure that nobody can collect your personal data from your phone and credit cards is to enclose them a shielding device. One which is, in this case, soft and fully dry-cleanable.

So now that people are more aware of potential risks of wireless identity theft, and I also have a much freer hand to experiment with things at work, I am finally going to be able to bring this idea to market. Some of my Fall 2015 garments will be equipped with a pocket that will be lined with the shielding material and closed with a special zipper that we can only get in Japan so that cards and other devices can be shielded form skimming, but also so that you can zip up all your stuff in a pocket when you chuck your jacket in the x-ray bin at the airport or when traveling through crowded, pickpocket-prone areas. The labs in Germany are now working on other interesting new textile solutions like heated fibers and silver anti-microbial treatments (which have the added bonus of protecting against vampires!) so I am converting part of our design process into an experimental lab to see how some of these developments can be applied in the real world.

My job just got that much more interesting.

Shielding test data on our new copper mesh textile

12 comments: said...

Amazing cross-fertilisation of ideas Geoffrey, thats what thinking outside the square can do for humanity and we thank you for it.

Anonymous said...

Great information! The relationship between creativity and engineering is usually a dance that those most adept at either can both enjoy and apppreciate.

Anonymous said...

Jeffery - is there any possibility that the fabric is available to those of us limited to sewing for ourselves?

Kim said...

Cool. So very interesting, Jeffrey.

Anonymous said...

It's a very nice idea! My only concern is specific to cell phones: from what I remember from my studies, cell phones emit greater power the weaker the signal is. In a pocket like the one you describe they would keep transmitting with a great level of power, therefore draining the battery sooner and possibly warming up. Am I totally off track?

Rarden said...

An intresting developmend, I've just got two questions: Isn't the blocking of the 900 and 1800 MHz stopping your cellphone from recieving calls? And if the pocket is blocking radiation from/for RFID signals, how about shoplifting? In the Netherlands for excample most shops use RFID-chips to keep there products save.

Josch said...

Dear Jeffery, I am happy that you start another trial to bring this idea to market. We have had a lot of visits of german suppliers, mainly from the interlining sector, trying to sell this materials to us. Unfortunately the creatives didn't like it too much, I'd say it felt too artificial. But I agree, times change and so does the mindset. With this I am sure that we will see more technical and natural hybrids in the near future. As much as we think that fashion is looking into the future, technically we are quite prudent :-) br Josch

Jeffery Diduch said...

Correct that this product prevents calls from being received. While I might leave credit cards etc in the pocket always, I would use the pocket for a phone only when moving though high-risk areas like crowded train stations etc. This doesn't however, do anything for the RFID chips which are not entirely enclosed in the pocket so it has no effect on shoplifting (unless it fits in your pocket...)

To Josch's point, I think many in our industry are afraid to even try really new things. You mentioned 90% failure rate for startups in your own blog post and I think it's important to remember that this applies to many things- we have to be willing to fail nine times in order to succeed once.

Anonymous- I don't know if this material will be brought to a retail level. If manufacturers manage to gain some traction with it then perhaps.

Joyce Simons Murphy said...

I can see why you are excited about this opportunity! You are making history in the new "fashion-plus-technology-equals-smart-fashion" field.
Have you named your new pocket? Will you be applying for a patent? Keep us posted please. This will be a fun one to follow. Congratulations on a great start, Jeffery!

Marc said...

Making a case for the card/phone from the same material is probably more cost effective and useful. That way you can move the devices from pocket to bag, to anywhere without fear of it being read by a skimmer. If your only protection is your jacket pocket (perhaps one jacket) it's limited.

akb427 said...

In general, successful anti-microbial treatments are a good way to evolve tougher microbes. Since I've never worried about my suit being a transmission vector for E Coli, it might be better to save the silver for something useful instead of wasting a limited natural resource on disposable objects. If you are concerned about vampires, why not print crosses on your jacket linings and use garlic on the collar interlinings? Silver is generally for werewolves, anyways.

While I applaud the pursuit of new ideas, and adore zippered pockets, I can't see how RFID shielding a pocket is anywhere near as useful as getting an RFID-blocking wallet or card holder.

Jeffery Diduch said...

akb427- Human sweat is odorless (to humans). The bacteria which break down sweat is what causes odors so an antimicrobial treatment on the inside of the garment helps prevent odor, not e coli. And the thing about RFID blocking wallets is that most of them don't work very well- a faraday cage must completely enclose the item in order for it to be effective and most wallets leave large gaps where the signal can pass, some card holders as well. And you can't fit a phone in a card holder and these are becoming the most vulnerable to RFID skimming these days, with Apple Pay etc.

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