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Published in MIT News on August 29, 2017 by Michael Rutter, School of Engineering

Members of MIT’s class of 2021 get a free backpack — and a glimpse at the future of “smart” fabrics.

As part of this year’s freshman orientation at MIT, new students encountered the typical lineup of takeaways: booklets and brochures, a list of 101 things to do before they graduate, lots of T-shirts, pens, etc. For the first time, however, they were also given a completely new version of the old campus staple: the backpack.

Heaped into an uneven pyramid in the Coffeehouse, a room on the third floor of the Stratton Student Center that serves as orientation headquarters, there were dozens of bags — all with a seemingly identical black, white, and grey plaid design. They looked unassuming until Yoel Fink, professor of materials science, started talking to students about them: “These bags are the world’s first programmable backpacks!” he effused. The students leaned in closer, intrigued.

“We express our identity through the fabrics we wear,” said Fink. “And while each one of us is truly unique, the stuff we wear is certainly not,” he added. What if it were? What if our fabrics — say, the ones making up our backpacks — could communicate?

Thanks to Fink, now they can. A unique code is woven into the fabric material of the backpack given to each first-year student...

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