Freshmen receive smart backpacks during orientation

Course 3 professor hopes that smart fabrics can help connect people

8224 affoa backpack
Professor Yoel Fink PhD '00 demonstrates scanning a backpack on display at AFFOA.
Vivian Zhong–The Tech

Members of the Class of 2021 received a surprise gift upon checking in to MIT — a backpack that, when scanned with a smartphone, can display the profile its wearer uploaded. The fiber technology used in the backpack was developed for mass production earlier this year by MIT-based Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA), a consortium of companies, universities, research organizations, and non-profits dedicated to fiber and textile innovation.

Each backpack has a unique weave pattern that functions similarly to a barcode. Through the AFFOA Looks app, users can scan a Looks backpack and connect to other users.

“It’s the first time there’s been a backpack that looks and is as unique as you are,” Yoel Fink, Course 3 professor and chief executive of AFFOA, said in an interview with The Tech.

Scanning a backpack amounts to only “looking” at another user — that is, the screen will show only information that a user chooses to make public, such as a picture or short blurb. Users then have the option to “connect” with other users, which can reveal more private information such as an email address.

“It’s an entirely new way of connecting with people,” Fink said. “The technology really gives you a way to know about a person — what they want to display — before getting closer to them. But unlike social media, it’s based on physical interactions.”

Some prefrosh The Tech spoke with decided against using the backpack, citing privacy concerns. However, Fink maintained that the data collected was anonymized and would not be shared with MIT.

Course 20 professor Katharina Ribbeck originally suggested that each prefrosh should get a backpack. During her time as a Simmons Residential Scholar, Ribbeck noticed that some students had a hard time approaching new faces and making friends. Fink took the idea, received approval from Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz, and put it into action.

“I truly believe education is about getting people excited, and this is one way to do that,” Fink said. “One of the reasons MIT has invested into [AFFOA] is to make things like this more accessible to students and faculty.”

While the fabric technology was developed in labs at MIT and AFFOA facilities, the actual weaving process takes place at the Inman Mills complex in South Carolina. The woven fabric is then sent to Jansport, a backpack manufacturer, which directs the sewing of the material.

“One reason we chose backpacks [as a medium] is that they’re less intimate than clothing. Our clothes are very close to us, and they’re changing all the time. We leave our backpacks at the door, but they’re always the same,” Fink said.

While MIT labs come up with innovative technologies every year, only a small number make it to the marketplace, Fink said. “The time between invention and product — that’s the ‘Valley of Death,’” he said. “AFFOA exists to bridge that gap.”

Companies like Samsung and Google have experimented with “smart” fabrics before, but no company has come up with an entirely new way of making fibers like AFFOA, Fink said.

“[What Google is doing] is just a wire. It’s almost like a gimmick. The fundamental technology is taking a wire and putting it into a thread,” Fink said about Google’s recent unveiling of Project Jacquard, a touch-controlled textile. “That’s been done before — they’ve done it a little better — but the wire is not the basis for any functional device. So there’s a lot of hype, but at the end of the day, there’s no innovation in the technology. But here, every week, we are figuring out how to get more devices packed into a fiber.”

Messaging other users within the Looks app is not yet supported, but users can currently send each other emojis. Potential future app developments include the ability to send gifts, such as a redeemable cup of coffee, through the app, or to use the app as a way to make money, via advertisements or affiliate links.

Fink envisions the backpacks being used in elementary schools to increase security or in professional settings to improve networking. AFFOA first unveiled the backpacks at the opening for their headquarters and is now leading the production of over 5,000 backpacks a month. Drexel University students will be the next group to receive free backpacks.