The smart clothes market is booming and there’s much more than sports apparel on the horizon, but it still remains a tiny niche. Research firm Gartner predicts that smart clothing for athletes will grow from 0.1 million shipments in 2015 to 26 million units in 2016.
The U.S. apparel market is the largest in the world with a size of 225 bn $. If the average price per apparel article is 19 $, it means 12 bn units in circulation! Roughly multiply by 4 to have a worldwide estimate. It’s evident that the 26 million units above are just a drop in the ocean. Source.
Everything started with militaries. They used optical fibers to check fabric damage, providing a way to detect the location of impact wounds for soldiers. Is technology going to develop into connected smart clothes interacting with the user? There’s a long way to go before old-fashioned fashion will become technologized. In this post we are going to describe the current status of smart suits and investigate some future scenarios. Are you curious? Follow me.
Smart clothes and sport
Sport and healthcare are the starting point, just like other wearables (watches, wristbands etc…). At their most basic, wearables are a microchip, a data sensor, and a connection to another device. When sensors are into a shirt they can do a lot of things. Quantify your run. Monitor performance. Track parameters like distance, calories burned, heart rate, stress rate and intensity of movement etc… We can expect many improvements in this area, in particular, specialized solutions for professionals. For example, sensors that detect which of your muscles are working and transfer workout data to a smartphone. This will improve individual training. If you extend this principle to team sports, these smart clothes and the data will help to improve the performance of a team. In the emerging Internet of Things, everyday objects are becoming networked. Clothing is no exception.
This sounds great, but the technology is young and there are still some issues to solve. Textile sensors are special; they really have to be touching the skin, so need to avoid skin irritation. Smart shirts are already machine-washable, but you might have to remember to remove some pieces of tech before you toss them in. This is not helping when they will go mainstream. The other major problem of wearables is that conventional power supply is bulky, heavy and rigid, with a short lifetime. We will see later on, that scientists are trying to transform this weakness into an opportunity. Last but not least, there’s a complete lack of standards nowadays. Each brand and smart clothes manufacturer adopts proprietary solutions, which makes products not interchangeable.
If we look at the market today, we see several companies developing excellent tools. I decided to feature 3 remarkable examples of smart clothes. There are many more out there, but each of them is relevant, because it is a pioneer of future enhancements.
Athos Gear: seamlessly integrated, non-adhesive bio signal sensors woven directly into the fabric. They dialogue with a device called the Core: it collects and analyzes the physiological data from the sensors. Then sends everything to your mobile device via Bluetooth. They call it biomechanics and I expect that in the future this will develop into medical applications.
I also like Lumo. The technology itself is simple, it’s a smart body tracking put into shorts. It used to help posture and now provides real time metrics (including cadence, bounce, ground contact time, braking, pelvic rotation and stride length). It’s relevant because it offers realtime audio feedback via the app and your headphones. Future wearables will interact with people increasingly; voice is one of the best options.
LikeAGlove are leggings intelligently measuring a wearer’s shape so people can shop for the ideal sized clothes. Customization is a marketing concept. Tomorrow consumers might step onto a platform and have measurements taken with a laser scanner or simply transferred to the store by a LikeaGlove type of product.
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What’s next tomorrow?
The scenario I imagine for the next future is based on 3 items:
1. continuous improvement of current technology
2. smart clothes moving from sport and healthcare into medicine
3. innovation in production of energy
Google is active on adding new features to existing wearable technology.
Google Project Jacquard: Google created conductive yarns than can mix with cotton, polyester or silk. Using conductive yarns, bespoke touch and gesture-sensitive areas can be woven at precise locations, anywhere on the textile. Alternatively, sensor grids can be woven throughout the textile, creating large, interactive surfaces. You’re going to use your jeans as a controller for your smartphone: for example swiping your fingers across the sleeves to answer a call. Or as surface to project the image of the screen of your phone.
Google Project Soli: human hand becomes a natural, intuitive interface for our devices thanks to a micro radar system. The Soli sensor can track sub-millimeter motions at high speed and accuracy and fit into wearables. This way anything can be controlled without actually touching it.
Two important examples of the shift to pure medicine applications are described below.
Cancer Detecting Clothing: their technology claims to be able to detect the presence of cancer into human body. They call it healthy Selfie. Smart clothes like a shirt or a bra connected with your phone will work like a MRI and inform about the presence of cancer since the early stages. They’re now raising money for the FDA approval study.
MyCarolinas Tracker. It’s an app developed by the Carolina Healthcare System that has direct integration with more than 25 health trackers, 3 pulse oximeters, and 7 Bluetooth blood pressure cuffs. All of this information can then be viewed by your physician in their electronic health record. It’s an effort toward having one standard. And it’s an opening to remote medical care. Someone who lives hours away from the nearest doctor could slip on a connected shirt and receive assistance. The smart shirt becomes a medical diagnostic tool.
The third item is about energy. Some think our clothes will be equipped with solar cells. I believe it will not practical at all. I think that new textiles will be able to develop novel energy from heat, vibration and movement. Advancements in low-power electronics and improved on-body energy harvesting are allowing researchers to develop wearables that are able to both charge your smartphone and keep running the sensors embedded in the fabric. Since the moment you wear your smart clothes, they will begin transmitting information about both your health and the external environment, like level of pollution, weather forecasts and maybe even if your friends are walking around close to where you are.
Smart clothes will be like a second skin monitoring both the person and the environment. Sport, medicine for everybody (infants, pregnants etc…), GPS controlling kids, recharging our smartphone will become daily applications. Even haptic will be obvious. They have already invented a shirt that can hug the person. Others will explore the emotional side of fashion: clothes changing shape and color depending on mood. But the real revolution will be invisibility. And it’s not what you think.
Wearables hardware will become gradually invisible. I think that computers will become molecular, so based on atoms. Sensors will not be just tinier, they will be invisible. And powerful. In fact, very smart systems adapt their behavior to circumstances. So our smart clothes will interact with us and change accordingly. Clothes will contain particles much smaller than the cells in your body, programmed to change clothes’ color or pattern. When? If you follow my blog, you know the answer: 2035.
In the meantime, I hope that the fashion industry will be able to solve current issues. They are about chemicals into fabric, exploit of juvenile work and clothes build not to last (for profit). The smart or dumb is a concept I’d like to apply first to manufacturers, then to shirts.
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