At the 2016 World Government Summit in Dubai, tech tycoon Elon Musk observed: “To some degree we are already a cyborg—you think of all the digital tools that you have—your phone, your computer.”
Musk’s comments met with nervous amusement in the audience, but technological progress isn’t exactly proving him wrong. Wearables—like the Apple Watch or Fitbit, which are smart, or network-connected, devices that users wear on their wrists—are becoming increasingly sophisticated as they seek to improve our health and enhance our lifestyles. They are also taking ever more sleek and elegant forms, such as smart rings, necklaces, and earrings that monitor everything from our heart rates to UV exposure. Yet even those advancements may soon fall out of vogue.
For one of the hottest trends is bringing tech even closer to our bodies—and Musk’s view closer to reality: smart clothes.
Like smart underwear.
Engineers at Vanderbilt University developed a “performance-boosting super-suit,” as assistant professor and project lead Karl Zelik playfully envisioned it. While designed to be worn under the clothes, their device isn’t exactly intended as a pair of Bluetooth boxers or wifi tighty-whities. Wearers strap it around their chest, back, and thighs, and, with a tap of a hand, they can activate special straps that reduce activity in lower back muscles, helping to prevent back pain associated with certain movements and exertions.
Zelik’s innovation holds a lot of promise, but are we really headed towards a day when we dress ourselves in a complete smart wardrobe, from smart hats down to smart shoes? And do we really want to?
Levi’s smart jacket lets you switch songs with a brush of the sleeve.
Levi’s and Google are betting we do. The two teamed up in Project Jacquard, the latter word referring to a type of loom that can weave complex patterns. It’s a fitting name, for Google has engineered threads embedded with special electronics that look, feel, flex, and can be washed like normal fibers. Using these so-called e-textiles, Levi’s then tailored a denim jacket, the Commuter Trucker, which went on sale in September 2017 after several years of development.
Powered by Google’s Jacquard Threads, the Commuter Trucker features a connected, touch-sensitive sleeve: “With a simple brush of the cuff, you can now get your next direction or skip to the next track on your playlist,” Google explains. Through a snap tag on the cuff, the jacket pairs with an app on your smartphone, where you can customize your gestures and other functions.
The smart jacket was designed to be a smart choice for urban cyclists, helping them keep their eyes on the road and not on their phones. It looks smart, too, coming in a handsome dark wash available for men and women. But it also comes with a hefty price tag: $350. Is it worth it?
So far, the results are mixed. Early reviewers describe the swiping and tapping—what’s called haptic, or “touch,” technology—as fun and exciting, but they have serious reservations about the jacket’s actual usefulness. Writing for The Verge, Dieter Bohn doubts the jacket is any more convenient than smart controls on a Bluetooth headset.
For Gizmodo, Melanie Ehrenkranz finds the jacket’s Bluetooth-tethering snap tag to be a drain on her phone battery, not to mention needing its own charging. As she sizes it up: “I'm not writing off the future for smart jackets, but for now it's nothing but a stylish gimmick.”
And while the Commuter Jacket—which can only be washed up to 10 times before its e-threads fail—helps keep cyclists’ eyes on the road, it may take their ears off them when giving audio directions or shuffling up the playlist, which are distractions some think can put cyclists at risk. Plus, some cyclists may not find it exactly comfortable to commute in denim.
We’ll have to wait and see what other tricks Google and Levi’s have, er, up their sleeves, but the Jacquard Threads are nonetheless showing tremendous potential. For one, they are integrating smart technology into the literal fiber of the garment, as opposed to merely stitching an external device onto an article of clothing. For another, they are designing smart clothing people would actually wear.
The challenge of smart clothes is moving from nifty gizmos to useful garments.
Jacquard Threads have also made considerable strides ahead of other smart clothing that have made it to the marketplace—or never quite left the showroom floor—in recent years.
In 2014, Tommy Hilfiger released a jacket equipped with solar panels and USB ports to charge your smartphone. It retailed at $600. In 2015, Joe’s Jeans debuted #Hello, a pair of jeans featuring a side pocket where you can charge your smartphone. The separate battery puts you back another $50 on top of the nearly $200 pants. Various wallets and purses also jumped on the “chargeables” bandwagon, but this future of fashion—owing to price and purpose, ostensibly—never quite took off.
Samsung tried a NFC smart suit in early 2016. NFC stands for “near-field communication,” the technology that allows you to wave your credit card to pay at the checkout counter. With its NFC smart suit, Samsung sought to solve, apparently, that age-old problem of business cards. Why carry around and hand out a little, 3.5 x 2-inch piece of paper when you can simply flash your suit’s NFC tag and transfer your details to a new contact’s phone? Though the $500 suits, dapper in design, went on sale in South Korea, it seems the rest of us didn’t find lugging around analog business cards to be too much of a hassle.
Then there’s the Jersey X—“the fourth dimension of fandom”—from Wearable X. When you have this shirt on, you feel vibrations whenever the football team you are rooting for, say, scores a touchdown, intercepts the ball, or makes a big play. “You get the sensations of what that team is going through…You then feel that excitement live as the game is played,” says Billie Whitehouse, CEO of Wearable X, in the product’s explainer video.
And at a special Ghost in the Shell–themed exhibition at 2017’s Paris Fashion Week, haute couture met “haute technologie” on the runway. Leading website for all things wearables, Wareable, highlighted a few pieces:
Chromat showcased its Adrenaline Dress, which expands into an imposing shape when its Intel sensors detect adrenaline.
CuteCircuit presented its microLED-embroidered Kinetic Dress, a gown which lights up in a neon rainbow in response to the wearer’s movements and environment. (The company also has a Twitter dress—yes, a dress that flashes live tweets across its fabric.)
And designer Ying Gao featured the Incertitudes dress, covered in little rippling pins that are activated by voice and sound.
Adrenaline-sensing, electroluminescent, voice-activated formal wear—these sci-fi showstoppers are, no doubt, deliberately pushing the envelope when it comes to how we think about fashion and technology. And though packaged in a futuristic flair, their couturiers-cum-engineers are also teasing some of the innovations on the not-so-distant horizon.
But they still raise the question: What are these smart clothes for? They may dazzle us, but do really need them?
SUPA’s superpower is answering the big questions of smart clothes.
For Sabine Seymour, the why of smart clothes is the central question. Seymour is the founder and CEO of SUPA, a “biometric sensor kit for apparel,” that she says is “able to get the vital signs from your body seamlessly in you base layers in an everyday environment, sports environment, work environment.”
Like an Apple Watch or Fitbit, SUPA is equipped with sensors that read health data directly from the body. But because most of SUPA technology is seamless—that is, in the garment itself—it can pick up a more direct signal than a smart bracelet that is further removed the heart or a smart necklace that can bump and slide around. Smart clothes have an advantage over existing wearables, she tells FashionBeans, “because it’s in a textile, it’s right there. It’s closer. It’s tighter. It picks it up right way."
E-textiles can also collect a greater range of biometric data, such as hydration levels, core body temperature, respiration, or body weight.
To model her technology, Seymour developed the SUPA-powered (pun intended) sports bra. (It costs $180, including the cost of the Reactor, a small device which allows her smart threads to communicate to the associated app. A stripped-down strap is an option for men.)
Seymour understands that branding matters for smart clothes—that people want technology they will genuinely wear. Her sports bra is bright, playful, and spunky, so much so that she’s been asked to produce more. A retailer has also picked it up.
There are great many other health-and-fitness smart clothes offering biometrics similar to SUPA’s. Sensoria smart socks lets runners track everything from pace to stride force. Nadi X smart leggings (also from jersey-jolters Wearable X) helps yoga practitioners correct poses through vibration. The Athos smart workout suit provides real-time muscle activity data for athletes. And WELT is a smart belt that monitors waist size and time spent sitting.
But unlike these products, SUPA in itself isn’t a one-off. Rather, it offers her technology—or kits, as she calls them—to other brands so they can develop their own specialized applications. SUPA then helps make meaning of, helps contextualize, all the information they collect, Seymour explains. A major pillar of SUPA “is to actually create applications that are exciting for consumers,” she says. “There is a why that is answered. Why would the consumer want to have that?”
Seymour quickly lists off a host of such applications: “A motion sensor for a knee rehab application. Another sensor for a gaming application, a garment for a game controller for a VR experience. Another is to use the sensor to see if they are hitting the baseball right.” Wetsuits that can read surf and weather conditions. A base layer for snowboarders that can alert helicopters of an avalanche. Seymour’s SUPA-powered ideas—motivated by real-world needs, interests, and uses—goes on.
“In the next few years, if we’ve gathered enough data, we can understand why certain diseases happen,” she suggests.
Wendu wants to change how we live, work, and play—literally.
While SUPA is monitoring how we are responding to our environments, Wendu is seeking to actually change those environments.
“The shirts themselves adapt to the ambient temperature to make you comfortable,” says Nelson Marín, director of international markets for Wendu, a temperature-regulating t-shirt. With Wendu on, wearers can use their smartphone, tablet, or watch to send a signal to the smart shirt, which can cool them off or warm them up to the desired temperature in mere minutes.
It typically runs on a “smart mode,” according to Marín. “It uses sensors and it tries to, basically, keep a moderate temperature. The user can also override and set their own personal temp and choose their own activity levels.” Wendu is offered in a causal line—like a polo to warm you up in your cold office—and a sports line. “With the sports line, the settings on the apparel are trying to keep your body as cool as possible to maximize efficiency. It’s going beyond comfort and giving your body the ideal temperature, the most efficient temperature.”
While Wendu is only slated for pre-order through Kickstarter right now, Marín tells FashionBeans that the company already has some interest with partners to harness its temperature-regulating capabilities for work safety and productivity. “People who work outside in uniforms, armed forces, police, anybody who is under extreme temperature or wears a pretty heavy amount of clothes,” he says, could benefit from Wendu technology.
Other designers and engineers see similar opportunities for smart clothes. University of Minnesota Associate Professor Lucy Dunne developed a glove with special sensors to help firefighters better “see” in poor-visibility conditions.
CuteCircuit—you know, the ones with the Twitter dress—aren’t all fun and games, as they see applications for the LED-embedded clothing to display flight information on airline attendants or provide lighting for workers on the tarmac.
And DARPA, the U.S. military’s tech-research arm, which helped pave the way for the internet, funded the Harvard Biodesign Lab’s construction of the Soft Exosuit, a full-on wearable robot. It uses hi-tech textiles to apply “assistive forces,” helping leg muscles and tendons move better and for longer. The lab envisions its Soft Exosuit aiding workers or soldiers carrying heavy loads as well supporting the elderly or people with disabilities.
Getting Down to the Skivvies
The cyborgian Soft Exosuit should have Elon Musk nodding his head and saying, “I told you so.” But, with the technology like Jacquard Threads still in its infancy, we’re still aways off from a complete, head-to-toe smart wardrobe.
Plus, consumer taste might mean we will never have a full smart wardrobe. Imagine if we had to use a separate device for each application on our smartphones, from listening to music to making phone calls to updating our status on Twitter. (In so many ways, we should remember, we used to.)
The average person may not want—or be able to afford, or have the patience to charge—to don smart socks that measure stride, a smart shirt that measures heart rate and regulates body temperature, and a smart jacket that doubles as a touchscreen.
SUPA’s Sabine Seymour, for her part, thinks smart clothes will become far more streamlined and inconspicuous. She looks to a time when e-textiles will be as ordinary as plain, white cotton, automatically woven into clothing and with their various functionalities all woven into one. It’ll be up to consumers whether or not they want to turn on those threads and collect data.
And what form does she think the space-age onesie will take?
Well, “you wear your underwear everyday,” she says.