A Handshake in a Backpack — Drexel Freshmen Among First to Try Out Programmable Packs

In the midst of moving in, meeting new roommates and exploring campus, Drexel freshmen will find a new way to connect with one another as they begin their college experience this year: socializing via backpack.

More than 3,000 individualized backpacks will be distributed to Drexel’s incoming freshmen this weekend as part of the university’s move-in week festivities. In addition to the standard cargo, each bag contains a unique code woven into its fabric. The unassuming plaid on the backpack is actually a fabric-based coding system that links up with an app to relay a customized bit of information to anyone who scans it.

“Through this bag, you can link anything from social media to a favorite song,” said Genevieve Dion, director of the Center for Functional Fabrics at Drexel. Dion is helping to develop technology like this as part of the Center’s partnership in the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America, a research institute driven by academic-corporate collaborations and supported by the U.S. Department of Defense in hopes of making the country a leader in producing technologically advanced fabrics.

The backpacks, which are not commercially available, are just a glimpse at the vast array of possibilities for fabric technology. Yoel Fink, PhD, a professor at Massachusettes Institute of Technology and COE of AFFOA, was one of the visionaries behind the backpack and the AFFOA LOOks app interface. He will be on campus along with Dion to distribute packs to incoming freshmen and show off their functionality at welcome week activities in the Rec Center on Sept. 16-17.

According to Dion, it’s only fitting that Drexel students will be among the first to try out a new optical code interface technology that traces its lineage to the barcode, which was invented by a pair of Drexel grads more than 75 years ago.

“AFFOA has embedded this everyday accessory with an unrecognizable form of barcode to create a unique technology,” Dion said. “We think this is a good way not only to introduce the idea of functional fabrics, but also to get students to think creatively about the world around them — which is the seed of innovation.”

AFFOA Looks technology
Fabric bar codes that interface with the AFFOA Looks app were developed in the form of backpacks and laptop sleeves by researchers at MIT and Drexel.

AFFOA worked with corporate partners JanSport and SC Inman Mills to manufacture the first batch of programmable backpacks, which were introduced at AFFOA’s grand opening in June and handed out to MIT students in August. Dion and her team at CFF designed and produced a knitted laptop sleeve for the LOOks platform that was also distributed at the AFFOA opening in Cambridge.

Dion sees the sleeves and backpacks as an example of fully integrating fabrics with technology — an idea that holds limitless possibilities, from applications in healthcare to social media to energy storage. But for now, Drexel freshmen will see how their advanced textiles can help them lug textbooks and meet new friends.


For media inquiries contact Britt Faulstick, bef29@drexel.edu