Wearable technology gave consumers Nike’s popular HyperAdapt shoes, and Under Armour brought to the market shoes that can track a runner’s data through GPS. Meanwhile, the entire industry has gone gaga over the smart watch by Apple, and activity trackers like Fitbit. But today, smart wearables are no more limited to a small touch point at the wrist, as smart clothing is now different with longer ranges and more accuracy.
Smart clothing, also known as e-textiles, is more commonly identified as wearables which are integrated with sensors and digital components in them. Initially introduced as fitness trackers and smart watches, the market of wearable technology has now grown into clothing, which can monitor the wearer’s physical condition in a given environment. Combined with machine learning and big data analysis, the technology can further provide consumers more data about their lifestyles and their body.
Proving to be an extremely beneficial application for sports and leisure, healthcare and military industry, even though the wearable market is recorded to be a US $ 28 billion per year industry, smart clothing still represents a fraction of that market. According to a research report by Research Nester, a strategic market research and consulting service, “Global smart clothing market is anticipated to witness robust growth, expected to garner US $ 5.2 billion by the end of 2024.”
One of the most well-received examples of the same this year was the ‘self-heating jacket’ by Ralph Lauren, sported by team USA during the Winter Olympics 2018 held through the chilly winters of South Korea. Made of flexible carbon and silver ink printed directly onto the fabric, according to Ralph Lauren, “the ink is conductive, and connects to a battery pack that can be set to high, low, or off. At a full charge, it provides five hours of heat on the high setting, and 11 hours on the low.”
Another product that rather fetched mixed reviews after its launch in 2017 was the much-awaited smart jacket called Commuter X, launched in collaboration between Alphabet’s Google and Levi Strauss. Conceived as a denim jacket that lets the user control a phone through the use of gestures alone – the jacket connected through Google’s conductive Jacquard Thread, which is woven into the sleeve, and the Jacquard snap tag, which syncs to a smartphone via Bluetooth. The jacket was sold at a price of US $ 350 and was designed for a bike commuter who could use gestures to control the phone while biking, instead of pulling it out of the pocket every time.
Moving beyond aesthetics in design, these smart clothes are also made of fabrics and fibres which can regulate body temperature, and can even release medications into the skin. American brand, Under Armour sells ‘athletic recovery sleepwear’ which are pajamas that beam infrared radiation onto the wearer’s body to boost recovery.
In early 2018, DuPont Advanced Materials (DuPont) launched DuPont™ Intexar™ – a powered smart clothing technology for on-body heating. The company describes Intexar™ Heat as a thin lightweight and durable heating solution for outdoor clothing that is designed to be easily integrated into garments and when powered creates comfortable warmth. The technology can further enable biometric monitoring in smart clothing as well such as monitoring pulse rate, respiratory rate, muscle activity and forming awareness.
“Our team has worked hard to develop a heater that feels like fabric, doesn’t rely on cables, thick wires or big batteries, and can stand up to very cold environment. From outdoor enthusiasts to industrial workers, Intexar™ Heat can help conquer the elements in comfort, increasing focus and improving performance,”said Michael Burrows, Global Business Manager, DuPont Advanced Materials.
Companies like Clothing+ produce medical applications such as heart, brain and lungs monitoring solutions in e-textiles along with other popular products like smart blankets. Other fabric companies such as Camira fabric and Hexoskin provide smart fabrics to different hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living. Hexoskin fabrics are embedded with cardiac, movement and breathing sensors for tracking the patient’s data as per the health segment.
Pireta creates smart fabrics which are customised as per the selection of garments for continuous physiological monitoring and emergency care. Various other start-ups are getting into smart pediatric wear to monitor the ECG and heart rate of infants, and postures of expecting mothers.
Other innovators in the industry are companies like Edema ApS, which has developed a washable stocking that monitors and measures changes in leg volume for patients suffering from edema (fluid accumulation or swelling) of the lower limbs. According to the company, the material of the stocking is especially designed as a compression stocking that instantly measures all changes of leg expansion. The measurements are then sent to a mobile phone that shows the actual changes of swelling in the legs. This information is then automatically sent to clinicians at the hospital for observation.
Paving way for a highly collaborative industry in which more and more technology providers will be partnering with apparel companies – even designers are now stepping into the market with wearable-tech innovations. Designer Julianna Bass recently collaborated with New York-based company Loomia, to develop a colour-changing textile used in two of her dresses in Spring/Summer ’18 collection showcased during the New York fashion week. Loomia is known to make flexible circuitry that can emit heat and/or light, as well as sense and track data. But more than that, the company has also created e-textiles that are machine washable.
With so much happening in the wearable technology, it will not be long before mainstream retailers also start offering garments with more than just performance finishes. What was in fact a mere concept only a few years ago, is now already on the ramps and in stores.