“Smart.” It’s become the byword of our era as phones, watches, and even homes have become more and more digitally networked. It appears that the humble t-shirt is next in line for an upgrade, as smart clothes start rolling out to consumers.
Smart clothes, also known as e-textiles — clothing with embedded sensors, in other words — will monitor our health, improve our workouts, power our devices, track our kids, keep us warm, and might even make for some snazzy shapeshifting and color changing designs that couldn’t happen without some tech wizardry. The marketplace is wide open, and players large and small are scurrying to get in while things are still developing.
Health and Fitness
High fashion mega brand Ralph Lauren recently teamed with smart clothing and sensor specialist OM Signal to create the Polo Tech Shirt. The $300 athletic top can track workout intensity and even measure calories burned. Sensors are connected by conductive silver fibers that are woven into a moisture-wicking compression fabric that aids in blood circulation and muscle recovery. The shirt communicates to a companion smartphone app and can send you messages when you aren’t working out hard enough.
OMSignal is also offering products under its own brand as well, including the OMbra, a machine washable sports bra that comes with a “Biometric Coach” that monitors heart and breathing rates. The data can also be exported to a number of popular third-party health apps including Apple’s Healthkit, Nike+, and Runkeeper.
Clothing+ is the old guard in smart clothing (if there is such a thing), having developed the first heart-rate sensor incorporated into a shirt almost twenty years ago. Today, their technology is being used in hospitals to more easily monitor patients, as well as by some major sports brands like Adidas and Under Armour to better train and track athletes. The Finnish company is also responsible for the sensor tech in Victoria’s Secret’s first smart offering: The Incredible by Victoria’s Secret Heart-Rate Monitor Compatible Sport Bra.
Conductive fiber (thin, flexible, metal thread that can be woven into traditional fabrics) underlies much smart clothing (it’s the stuff that makes texting gloves possible), but in addition to transmitting data it can also be used as a heating element. For the 2012 London Olympics, Adidas sponsored Team GB cyclists and outfitted them with Adipower Muscle Warming Garments. These literal “hotpants” warmed muscles to an efficient 100 degrees fahrenheit, meaning cyclists required less warm up time before strenuous exertion.
Fitness brand Athos has tapped NBA star Jermaine O’Neal as both an investor and promoter of its line of smart clothing. The company is hoping to appeal to elite athletes with a high-end design that features four heart-rate sensors and eight muscle-activity sensors that can isolate and show how individual muscle groups are working.
Lumo, which was among the first companies to offer a posture monitoring technology, is working on smart clothes that will not only measure physical exertion but also body mechanics like cadence, bounce, ground contact time, braking, pelvic rotation, and stride length.
Parents will also find a reason to consider e-textiles. Consider baby monitors: There are many models available today, but most are simply closed-circuit webcams. Mimo hopes to change that by offering a onesie with a cute little turtle-shaped monitor built into it that can track your sleeping baby and update you on breathing and body position.
Google has teamed up with denim brand Levi’s to make smart clothes that offer functionality for the less athletically inclined. The technology company’s Advanced Technology and Projects Group is developing fabric that can sense touch gestures — which means the day may soon arrive when dismissing a call or changing a song is as simple as swiping your sleeve.
Samsung has a whole range of smart clothes in development that look indistinguishable from most clothing products, including a two-piece suit with embedded NFC chips that communicate with your smartphone, and the Welt Smart Belt, which measures your waistline and informs you via an app when you have been overeating.
To promote their Edison microcontroller (a small, low-power computer), Intel partnered with a Dutch high-tech fashion designer, Anouk Wipprecht, to create the Synapse Dress. A brainwave-sensing headband would transmit information to the dress, which changes both shape and color based on the wearer’s mood.
Today, many of us find it hard to imagine going back to the era before smartphones kept us constantly updated. A decade from now, we may have trouble remembering a time when our clothes didn’t offer us a helping hand.