Let’s get the introduction out of the way. Chances are, you’ve come across the terms smart textiles, smart fabrics, or smart clothes. What do these terms really mean? Smart clothing essentially refers to integrating IoT technology in the design and manufacture of garments.
To what end you ask? In a nutshell, improved functionality and utility - in practice, smart clothing can be designed towards a variety of functions - performance tracking, increased comfort, increased interactivity etc.
Over the years, manufacturers have found many a way to integrate modern IoT capabilities into their fashion offerings. Although high-tech clothes have been around, in one form or another, for quite some time, they didn’t find their stride until quite recently.
A few years ago, when the IoT craze was still in its infancy and the idea of a hyperconnected world had more to do with speculation than anything else, analysts and industry experts predicted a massive boom in demand for connected wearables, including smart textiles.
Cut to 2020 and a world of connected things is no longer just a fantasy - Between sensors becoming dirt cheap, cutting-edge IoT technologies emerging and data access exploding, an IoT-enabled world of connected things is very much a throbbing reality all around us.
The Internet of Things is predicated on a very simple idea - We use the internet to do all sorts of tasks; We interact with a million different objects in everyday life while doing these tasks. Why not marry the two and bypass the tyranny of having to access the internet only through traditional computing devices like phones and computers? That is, an integrated world, where practically every last thing around you, big or small could potentially be hooked up to the internet, creating endless loops of data-driven optimisation.
IoT’s endgame was to increase interactiveness at key points of interaction between man and object. It then stood to reason that wearable technology was touted to be the next billion dollar industry. This was very reasonable by any means, even to the most uninformed outsider - after all, if the goal was to create intuitive interfaces out of everyday objects, what could be better than clothes and accessories? After all, people (ok, the overwhelming majority) wear clothes all the time. It’s obvious then that if everyday objects were to be transformed into internet access points, smart clothing was going to explode and fast!
Not quite - For many years, IoT technology teetered under the crippling weight of its own grandeur and ambition. IoT-powered smart technology, far from being the beacon that was promised, went exactly the other way - From a “smart” egg tray that could purportedly warn you about your eggs going bad to a shower-door that doubled as a high-tech doodle book, the highly vaunted IoT promise sank to ignominious depths that didn’t go unnoticed (or un-ridiculed). But despite the seemingly endless slew of hilariously dumb “smart products”, the Internet of Things continued to draw huge bets.
Vindicating Gordon Moore’s (of Moore’s law fame) predictions, the 2010’s witnessed what could only be described as a technological explosion - a tipping point if you will. Human technological capability surged to previously unimagined heights and month after month, year after year, seemingly impossible things were being accomplished. A veritable laundry list of space-age technology emerged, seemingly all at once - Artificial intelligence, Machine learning, Edge computing, Energy harvesting, Remote sensing, 5G data, NFC, RFID, batteryless sensors - the list could go on. Suddenly, the idea of a connected world populated by smart-things connected to the internet didn’t seem so ridiculous after all.
Wearable technology sales exploded - products like Apple Watch, Fitbit etc. flew off the shelves. Frustratingly however, smart textiles didn’t quite take off on the same scale. Many big-wigs tried their hand at integrating IoT components into their apparel, but for most part, they ended up being gimmicky fads that didn’t give the user much real-world utility.
Smart clothing was starting to be dismissed as a bit of a pipe dream. However, in spite of slow progress, the fashion industry persisted with the idea of smart textiles. After all, there was so much promise to be unearthed yet. Although they hadn’t yet nailed the winning formula, there was widespread consensus that smart clothes had real potential to be something big.
One of the major challenges that lay in the way of widespread adoption was cost. Manufacturers weren’t able to offer IoT-integrated solutions at a price that was appealing to the mass market. This is where things started to take a turn for the better - As chips got cheaper and cheaper to produce, the mass-market viability of smart clothes started looking sunnier.
But, another massive challenge stood in the way - batteries. For tech to be integrated into clothing seamlessly, in a way that wasn’t intrusive, it was imperative for IoT to look past batteries. Think about it - if you were buying a smart shirt or a pair of smart trousers, the first thing you’d want is for the “smart stuff” to be cleverly concealed and fully hidden - i.e completely integrated into the garment. This wouldn’t be possible if the IoT-component of the shirt or trouser ran on batteries, what with the replacement hassles, and so on.
Imagine this scenario - you shell out a premium for a pair of running shorts, that are identical in every way to your regular dollar store pair, except for the IoT wizardry integrated into them; From the manufacturer’s perspective, it’s highly important to make sure the electronic component doesn’t just stop working one fine day, leaving you with a massively overpriced pair of gym shorts. For the longest time, smart clothing couldn’t really take off due to this major drawback. As such, they weren’t offering much to the user and when the user had to account for battery-failures or glitches, the proposition seemed to bring up more problems than it solved.
Thankfully though, IoT found a way to move beyond batteries. With the advent of energy harvesting and self-powered sensors, smart clothing could now be truly practical, from the end-consumer’s point of view, and not just a statement of geek cred.
Batteryless IoT-chips could actually offer consumers a low-cost, high-value proposition that actually solved a problem or two, over a substantial period of time.
Athletic apparel, aimed at performance rather than style, emerged as the first widespread real world use-case for smart fabrics.
As far back as 2014, the German national football team made use of performance-enhancing wearable technology. In the 2014 football world cup, the team’s kit sponsor Adidas trialed their mi-coach system, to great success - sensors embedded in the team’s playing kit collected performance data such as speed, heart rate, kilometers covered, etc, in real-time. This data was seamlessly relayed onto a backend system where it could be endlessly crunched by the management, in order to identify problem areas and implement improvements.
Another cool example to highlight the massive potential of smart clothing in sports and fitness is the NadiX range of yoga pants, which come embedded with sensors that track your poses in real-time and use haptic feedback to help you with your form.
Under Armor, for instance, has developed a line of sportswear that can track and absorb body heat and relay it back to the skin. The company claims that this can aid faster recovery.
It's obvious that no matter how fast the technology grows or how mature the space becomes, there will always be products that try to capitalise on a trend without offering much in terms of meaningful utility. Our idea here is only to use some real-world examples as a backdrop to paint a picture of just how much is possible with IoT-integrated clothing and how we are just at the precipice of what could very well be an industry-defining trend.
Far from being limited to the niche world of sports enthusiasts and gym rats, smart fabrics can potentially offer a lot of value to the average Joe, in the near future. Actually, check that - as we speak, smart fabric technology has already entered the mainstream and it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere.
Sounds great. But, what exactly are they going to do you ask? As with all things IoT, it might be best for us to explore the possibilities by looking at some realistic use-case scenarios.
For instance, it is highly likely that soon, you might be able to charge up your phone by simply putting it into your pocket. Sensors embedded in your winter wear could alert you about when it’s time for your next dry clean. Soldiers’ uniforms could be fitted with sensors that can pre-emptively warn them of dangers such as toxic fumes.
The smart clothing market today is starting to witness some products that offer genuine value to the customer - Say, this bionic bra that uses sensors to adjust its fit on the fly, so as to offer women a more comfortable experience when on the move. This company makes smart socks that track your running and walking patterns and helps you with proper form, avoiding injury to your feet.
Now depending on your exact situation in life, you might or might not find any of these products immediately appealing. That’s understandable. But, the thing to be noted here is that smart fabric technology has definitely crossed the point of no return. Manufacturers have started experimenting with Sensor-enabled apparel in all sorts of solutions which are - you would agree - no longer mere marketing ploys.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the world’s leading technology company is at the forefront of smart-textile technology, with its ambitious and long-awaited smart clothing platform, Jacquard.
The jacquard platform is based on a project that was launched over a decade ago, with a bold aim to create smart fabrics that could replace screens as the interfacing modality of choice.
Google Jacquard is essentially a smart tag that you slip into your jacket, shoes, or backpack, to open up a number of “abilities” to interact with the internet. Google partnered with Levi’s to launch the first generation of Jacquard-enabled jackets a couple of years ago. The jacket could, among other things, enable you to answer phone calls without reaching for your phone. Further iterations added on more functionality, such as a warning system that alerted you if you left your phone behind.
Initial responses following the launch were not all rainbows and sunshine. The idea came in for criticism as a typical Silicon valley solution in search of a problem. Granted, 350$ isn’t exactly peanuts, essentially for a denim jacket that only came in one colour. But these criticisms were myopic in that they missed the idea entirely - the jacket was merely a proof of concept for the platform, which is designed for practically endless increments to its range of functions.
With the Jacquard tag, google could have possibly done to smart clothing what Apple did to mobile applications - harness the power of open-source and smash open the floodgates for third-party operators to use their platform to provide a million different solutions - Apparel and accessories manufacturers can operate within the Jacquard platform to enable their own turnkey smart-fabric solutions.
The day might not be far off that we look back at having to use our laptops and mobile phones to access the internet, as a relic from another age. The trajectory of IoT and IoT enabled verticals like smart fabrics is on the up and up. We’ve said this before but at the risk of labouring our point, the possibilities for the solutions that these technologies could enable are truly endless. All we can do is sit back and watch.