How Smart Garments are Transforming the Wearable Tech Market
Wearable technology has taken its time. Limited by price, bulkiness and low functionality, mainstream adoption of Wearables has been stubbornly slow, and although recent developments in design and technology have triggered a rise in sales of health trackers like Fitbit, the uptake on other devices remains reluctant. To integrate technology into the physical space of a user, it needs to feel natural, and this is where smart fabric technology is changing the future of Wearables.
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By weaving a device into the fabric of a user’s clothes, it becomes an integral part of their normal activity – enhancing their experience rather than hindering it. The technology is invisible, lightweight and can be spread across the body, gathering information, sending signals and responding to changes. From a tennis shirt which monitors heart rate, breathing and stress, to Ping, a hooded jacket that allows the wearer to stay connected to social media through a series of gestures or patterns, the potential uses for smart garments are endless.
To take a purely aesthetic approach, fabric with electronic capabilities can be made to light up, change colour, and display real-time visuals. These are features that have the ability to transform garments completely and features that the fashion and advertising industries have been quick to pick up on. In 2012, EE was one of the first brands to use smart garments as part of a marketing campaign, commissioning designers CuteCircuit to make a Twitter dress to mark the UK launch of the company’s 4G mobile network. The dress was worn by Nicole Scherzinger and displayed live tweets from her fans whilst she was on the red carpet. This was just the start and since then we have seen many major brands forming partnerships with tech companies to make smart fashion a reality, including a ‘Polo Tech Shirt’ from Ralph Lauren and Google’s partnership with Levi’s to create a pair of ‘smart jeans’ that interact with smartphones and tablets by swiping the fabric. Between conductive fabrics or sensor-clad smart garments, Wearables will soon intertwine so closely with fashion we won’t be able to tell them apart.
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Far from the glamour of the red carpet however, smart garments have been saving lives. The U.S. Military was one of the first organisations to recognise the practical, performance enhancing potential of smart fabric, and for the last 15 years has been developing tech-integrated clothing to help soldiers in the field. Alongside their initial functionality, one of the biggest benefits for the military of integrating their devices into smart garments is the size and versatility that comes from the fabric. Soldiers typically carry around 50kg of equipment but by transferring some of this to Wearables, they are not only easier to carry, but also significantly lighter. Soldiers are equipped with smart garments such a temperature-regulating gloves, clothing embedded with GPS trackers, hands free communication devices and a vest sensitive to infrared light (invisible to the human eye) which will alert a soldier if a sniper gun is being aimed at them. Military research into smart garments is on going, with new items being tested and developed constantly, and it is the tech behind these garments that will ultimately filter down into mainstream production.
Although it may be a while before we see smart garments on the high street, it is clear that they are already succeeding in specialised markets such as fashion and military wear. The benefits are also being recognised by health professionals and athletes with huge speculation on how smart garment technology could be put into widespread use across these industries. As application and usage of smart fabrics grows in these markets, it is inevitable the technology will become more readily available to the mainstream buyer, and a future in which regular device-users can tailor their wardrobe to their technical needs seems more and more imminent.