What the Well-Dressed Spy May Soon Be Wearing

Photo credit: Wikimedia

By Debbie Burke


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.


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?


Cultural Differences

By Nancy J. Cohen

Genres matter when you attend a conference. I started out in romance, attending National RWA and Romantic Times conventions. At RWA, we dressed in business attire and wore sequins to the Awards dinner. We taught workshops or we spoke on panels where the emphasis was teaching other writers the craft and business of writing. The same was true for smaller chapter conferences held around the state and throughout the country. Editor/Agent appointments were a staple for this type of working writers conference.

Romantic Times, in contrast, was a fan convention. Here we’d meet readers, booksellers, and reviewers in a fun, party-type setting. I still dressed in business casual during the day. At night, people wore costumes to themed balls and parties. As RT attracted more writers, they added writing tracks to educate aspiring authors. Now they’ve expanded to include other genres just as RT has changed its name to RT Book Reviews. It’s still a great conference to meet industry personnel and readers.

Then I switched to writing mysteries and attended Malice, Bouchercon, and SleuthFest. What a difference! People wore jeans! There were men in the crowd! Panelists were expected to be entertaining and witty and mostly talked about their books. Bouchercon and Malice are fan conventions while SleuthFest is a writers’ conference. SF has a forensics track and workshops for different levels of writing, along with editor/agent appointments.

The one thing these events have in common? Writers hang out at the bar, the hospitality lounge, or the dealers’ room and network like crazy. Costly swag gets picked up along with candy and pens. Bookmarks and other papers lay around the promo tables like unloved orphans.

And then I attended Necronomicon, my first SciFi/Fantasy/Horror convention. Lo and Behold! Another culture shock! In many ways, this convention was similar to the mystery cons. The panels were professional and moderated by a host. Aspiring authors attended in abundance. Instead of a forensics track like at a mystery writers conference, this convention had a science track led by scientist guests. However, here’s the biggest difference: Gamers. One darkened breakout room held 3 rows of computers where people sat  playing Halo. Other guys sat at round tables absorbed in role playing games.

Workshops went on into the wee hours of the night. I was scheduled to speak on three panels and had to request the organizer not to book me after dinner. Authors who paid for a spot in Author’s Alley sat at tables in a hallway and sold their own books. The Dealers’ Room was similar to the ones at mystery cons, where authors hope one of the vendors has their books for sale or else we make a consignment deal. I noted only one bookseller at this convention. Most of the vendors sold jewelry, games, and other knickknacks.

All in all, this conference was a valuable introduction to an entirely new audience. The panels were interesting as well as stimulating, and parties ranged into the night if you were so inclined. Check out my personal blog for more photos and reports on the panels I attended. Keep in mind that this was not like the big SciFi cons where TV and movie stars attend and people roam around in costumes. There was a costume contest, but it was one night only. This felt more like a writers conference aimed at SciFi/Fantasy authors.

Would I attend again? The jury is still out on that one. While the conference was comped for me since I was a speaker, I still paid over $500 for a hotel room. I sold two books. Granted, this audience is more likely to order the ebook version, but would I spend that money again instead of attending a conference that targets mystery or romance fans? We’ll see. The exposure to a new crowd is always good, and I had a great time meeting new people. I guess as in any choices we have, it depends on the budget.

If you have crossed genres, were you surprised by the differences at the conferences you attended?

Books To Films

Do you read a book and then go to watch the movie, or vice versa? Have you enjoyed a film and then rushed to buy the book for a more in-depth experience? I am more of the latter persuasion. I’ve bought a number of books based on movies/TV shows I’ve seen first.

For example, I became a fan of Legend of the Seeker, a fantasy series on TV based on Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth books. It interested me enough to try his first title, Wizard’s First Rule. What’s it about?

        Wizard's First Rule (The Sword of Truth)

Richard is a simple woodsman until his father is killed and he learns of his destiny as The Seeker of Truth. Reminding me at times of Star Wars (Episode IV) due to the hero’s journey structure of the novel (see Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey), I didn’t want to put the book down. The world building is so detailed that you feel you’re there. What keeps you turning pages, aside from the evil Darken Rahl’s attempts to kill Richard and the other nefarious creatures he encounters, is the forbidden love story between Richard and Kaylan. This weaves a spell on you to see if they can defeat the magic that keeps them apart. Their love is the driving force throughout the entire series. I’ve read everything Goodkind has written to date and eagerly await the next installment in his newest series.

I am happy to be a fan of some YA shows, too. Both my husband and I were enthralled by City of Ember, a YA scifi story and book one in The Books of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau. Twelve year olds Doon Harrow and Lina Mayfleet live in a mysterious city that depends solely upon a generator for light and power. When the lights begin to flicker and the city experiences blackouts, they know something is terribly wrong. They discover an old document that may provide clues to the city’s origins and an escape route beyond the forbidden boundary.

 City of Ember                       The City of Ember (Books of Ember)  

The Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz is another one my husband and I both got hooked on after seeing the film, Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker. Alex Pettyfer was cute as the teen spy in this action flick reminiscent of James Bond. Teenager Alex Rider is recruited by British Intelligence after his uncle, a spy, is murdered. Coerced into completing Uncle Ian’s mission, Alex proves his aptitude for the job. With his martial arts training, language skills, and courage, he is more than worthy of the role. We ran out to buy Stormbreaker, the first book in the series, after seeing this movie and now have all the rest of the books on our shelves.

 Alex Rider             Stormbreaker (Alex Rider)

After a glimpse at The Hunger Games, I am tempted again to read the book to fill in the thoughts and emotional reactions that are not evident in the film.

So which comes first for you—the movie or the book?