Smart Clothing: The Next Wave of Wearable Tech
But does it come in medium?
It seems that we have finally reached the point where wearable device manufacturers are starting to look beyond our wrists. Innovations are happening daily across the globe to get our whole bodies involved, further mainstreaming this incredible technology with ideas equally useful for world-class athletes and those who spend most of their days in business attire.
“You can make millions of smart watches that are identical, but you have millions of people who are not identical,” says Chris Harrison, an assistant professor of human-computer interaction who leads the Future Interfaces Group at Carnegie Mellon University. The individual variations in the thickness of our wrists, the amount of fat we store in the area, or even how much we sweat can profoundly influence the accuracy of measurements. Furthermore, wrists are exposed to plenty of abuse throughout the day – making them even less suitable as the preferred place for an expensive, high-end gadget.
The current selection of everyday smart clothes revolves mostly around NFC technology, but innovative new material technologies “allow for the detection, transmission, and protection of electrical signals within smart clothing,” explains Noble Biomaterials general manager Bennett Fisher. “Once the sensor is inside the clothing, what you’re wearing becomes a sensor.” One such technology was presented during I/O 2015 by Ivan Poupyrev, the founder of Google’s Project Jacquard. The technology, according to the Project Jacquard website, “makes it possible to weave touch and gesture interactivity into any textile using standard, industrial looms,” meaning that “everyday objects such as clothes and furniture can be transformed into interactive surfaces.” They achieve this by intertwining a conductive metal core with conventional fibers that can be dyed any color. Unsurprisingly, some of the biggest clothes manufacturers in the world, including Levi’s, are already exploring ways that they can use this technology to create something their customers would love.
The competition to be the first to dominate the market is fierce, with large and small companies alike joining the fray and introducing smart clothes that abandon wrists in favor of less conspicuous body parts. OMsignal’s OMbra, for example, uses a cutting-edge biometric fabric and integrated sensors to measure a woman’s heart rate, balance, breathing, stamina levels, distance traveled, calories burned, and plenty more. Upping the ante a bit from a single sports bra, Enflux Exercise Clothing consists of a compression shirt and pants with ten small embedded motion sensors. Because the suit can capture all body parts at once, athletes can replay performances using 3D animations with useful metrics like the precise angle and velocity of those body parts. (Plus, it looks like something Tony Stark would wear.) Other similar fitness-oriented products include the MyZone activity belt, the Lumo Run, LikeAGlove leggings, Athos shirts and shorts, and even a smart bra from Victoria’s Secret.
Workout fanatics can’t have all the fun, though. A smart suit that Samsung built in collaboration with Rogatis – and that goes for around $500 – gives you the ability to unlock your phone or digitally swap business cards with others, while Lyle & Scott makes a jacket that throws in a contactless payment chip found in credit cards to make contactless payments even more convenient.
Moving further beyond fashion to function, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland recently developed a promising technology that can adjust the temperature of smart clothing according to the wearer’s individual needs. Such technology clearly has potential for the healthcare industry, police officers, firemen, outdoor workers, and even babies, who already are the target audience for products such as Exmobaby, the Owlet Smart Sock, and MonBaby. It still may be some time, however, before these more complex innovations become commonplace, explains Rachel Metz in the MIT Technology Review: “Building these products (health-oriented smart devices] takes lots of time. Testing, simulations, modeling, prototyping, and problem-solving are all more extensive when you need to make sure the devices can stand up to the requirements of daily wear, such as frequent exposure to sweat and water.”
With all these innovations taking place all around us, it’s easy to see what the future of smart clothing is going to look like: it’s going to be more practical, less fitness-oriented, and infinitely more embraced by customers of all walks of life.