What the Well-Dressed Spy May Soon Be Wearing

Photo credit: Wikimedia

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Memo to James Bond: Forget Brioni and Tom Ford bespoke suits. The US government’s Intelligence Advanced Research Products Activity (IARPA) is going into the fashion business with SMART ePANTS.

SMART ePANTS stands for SMART ELECTRICALLY POWERED AND NETWORKED TEXTILE SYSTEMS.

Side note: Who wants to apply for the job to create snappy government acronyms?

A reported $22,000,000 is being used to develop textiles that are washable, breathable, flexible, and comfortable with smart technology woven right into the fabric. Soon shirts, pants, socks, and, yes, even underwear may be able to record photos, video, audio, and geolocation data.

Instead of body cams and handheld devices, law enforcement personnel or intelligence gatherers simply wear smart clothing that performs similar tasks.

According to IARPA, components include “weavable conductive polymer ‘wires’, energy harvesters powered by the body, ultra-low power printable computers on cloth, microphones that behave like threads, and ‘scrunchable’ batteries that can function after many deformations.”

The result is surveillance and recording capability that is undetectable, as inconspicuous as a tiny slub in the material of a shirt or pants.

The developer of SMART ePANTS is Dr. Dawson Cagle. A July, 2023 article in Homeland Security Today quotes Cagle:

“As a former weapons inspector myself, I know how much hand-carried electronics can interfere with my situational awareness at inspection sites,” Dr. Cagle said. “In unknown environments, I’d rather have my hands free to grab ladders and handrails more firmly and keep from hitting my head than holding some device.”

He adds: “We’ve moved computers into our smart phones. This is the chance to move computers into our clothing and help the IC, DoD, DHS, and other agencies improve their mission capabilities at the same time.”

Cagle says his father’s diabetes was the inspiration for the smart textile technology he’s working on. He describes how his father used to perform five manual tests a day to track his blood sugar. Now, automatic monitors are incorporated into smartphones for immediate testing anytime.

 

So, the wearer may also be watched.

The feds aren’t the first to pioneer smart textiles.

Underwear with embedded electrical stimulators is used to prevent bed sores. 

Smart clothing is available to consumers to track biometrics for health and fitness monitoring and even to improve yoga form. 

 

At IARPA, the testing process for smart textiles is divided into three parts: 18 months to “build it”; 12 months to “wear it”; 12 months to “wash it.”

IARPA is the government’s “Gee Whiz” department that experiments with new possibilities for cutting edge technology. IARPA “invests federal funding into high-risk, high reward projects to address challenges facing the intelligence community.”

Sometimes their experiments succeed; sometimes they’re costly failures.

According to The Intercept, Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) is one such example. In 2013, IARPA inventors went to work on wearable material that could transform into protective armor for soldiers, similar to the “Iron Man” suit that Robert Downey wore in the 2008 film.

In a 2013 article on Mashable:

Norman Wagner, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Delaware, is using nanotechnology to create a liquid-ceramic material. The moment the thin, liquid-like fabric is hit with something — say, a bullet — it would immediately transform into a much harder shell.

“It transitions when you hit it hard,” Wagner told NPR. “These particles organize themselves quickly, locally in a way that they can’t flow anymore and they become like a solid.”

 

After six years of research at a cost of $80,000,000, The Intercept reports TALOS was shelved in 2019 without producing a usable prototype.

As writers, we understand how many times our stories fail before being accepted by an agent or publisher. Fortunately, the cost of our experiments rarely runs into millions or billions.

Vincent Van Gogh said: “Success is sometimes the outcome of a whole string of failures.”

The concept of surveillance clothing revs up the imaginations of thriller, espionage, and sci-fi writers. Books and films have a long history of providing fodder for future inventions. Our jobs as writers include being visionaries and prophets.

Now the only question left to answer about SMART ePANTS: Boxers or briefs?

~~~

TKZers: Have you used “gee whiz” inventions like SMART ePANTS in your fiction?

What story situations can you imagine where wearable surveillance garments play a role?

Have you invented a product or concept that could come to pass in the future?

 

First Page Critique

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne


Today’s first page critique is for what I think is a sci-fi thriller. It’s called DEALBREAKER. My comments are at the end. Enjoy!


Mackenzie stood upright with his arms folded, concentrating on the sound made by the wheat on the planets surface far below as it gently swayed in the artificial wind. He cleared his mind of the constant flow of information from his implants, willing the augmented reality overlay to dissolve from his vision. Next he closed his eyes, allowing his arms to fall by his sides as he took cognisance of his own breathing. Finally his mind and body could relax.

Opening his eyes he looked into the distance, his view partially obscured by the huge hexagons of the domed superstructure protecting the buildings and land around him. The eastern horizon was dominated by a wall of dark cloud that blocked the view of the stars beyond. Already the very highest altitudes were tinged with crimson, hinting at the vivid reds and oranges that daylight would soon ignite. By the time the storm reached Dunvegan the sky would be a violent tempest of dust that would shred an EVA suit from anyone caught in the open.

Under normal circumstances the effort to secure all personnel and assets from the deadly weather front would be the companies top priority. Dealing with extreme weather was just part of the way of life on Demeter. It enabled junior operators to prove their worth to the company, and more seasoned figures the chance to prove they were still worth retaining. Mackenzie would rather have been coordinating the effort, ensuring the long range operators had taken sanctuary in the nearest survival dome, that those closer to base had made it back to the safety of Dunvegan. But today wasn’t normal. He’d initially queried the decision to delegate all surface operations to a relatively junior team, but Mackenzie had learned to trust Munro’s judgement during a crises, and had spoken no more about it from that point on.

He allowing his implants to interact with his mind and body again as he lowered his gaze from the horizon to the rest of the city. Calling up a tactical overlay, the numerous dome structures now appeared to take on different colours against the dusty reds and oranges of the planets surface. Most were now either white, to indicate no known disturbance, or a deep blue for those where order had been restored. The majority of red areas were dotted around the civic government quarter in the south of the city. He shook his head slowly and allowed himself a smile. When would they ever learn?


MY COMMENTS:


First of all there are numerous grammatical errors/typographical errors that detracted from the story. These include planets instead of planet’s, companies instead of company’s (or companies’ if there are multiple companies involved); crises instead of crisis, allowing instead of allowed. When it comes to an editor, these kind of errors can be fatal. I can’t stress this enough – the occasional typo is forgivable but wholesale grammatical errors are more than likely going to doom your submission. 


That being said, I thought the writer did a great job of providing an atmospheric, intriguing set up to his/her story. My main issue with this as a first page, however, is that it is all set up. There’s only exposition and very little in the way of action to draw the reader in immediately. Now, I am not an avid reader of science-fiction but I expect a writer in this genre needs to balance world-building with action/tension and pacing from the get go. I feel that the book needs to start in a different place – perhaps in the midst of a ‘disturbance’ in one of the domes where order hasn’t been restored and where we (as readers) encounter Mackenzie trying to juggle re-establishing government order while worrying about security and safety given the approaching dust storm.


Although this first page has a definite post-apocalyptic feel I think we need more immediacy to the crisis rather than just background. I also felt that there was too much repetition in terms of color. We have the vivid red which will be ignited once the dust storm arrives and we also have red areas where (I assume) disturbances are occurring within the domes. Though we get the feeling Mackenzie might be in law enforcement we aren’t entirely sure what his role is (does he work for the company? for the government? Who is Munro? Why is today not a normal day?) Most of this can be dealt with later in the first chapter but because this page has so much exposition it feels a little ungrounded without more specificity about Mackenzie and why we should (as readers) care about him as a character. I was also unsure about the significance of the last line or why Mackenzie ‘allowed himself a smile’.


What do you think?