We are all familiar with the evolution of the personal computer and the internet.
But what we tend to forget is how these two technologies have disrupted our entire economy, and some would say most other aspects of our society. As we rocket through the digital revolution we all carry a handheld personal computer with us that maintains a constant wireless connection to the internet and a wide range of other wireless devices. On the horizon? Smart clothing.
It’s now becoming more common for all types of product to be brought into the digital era via constant real-time connection with all other connected things. This phenomenon is referred to as the Internet of Things (IoT), a term coined back in 1999 by Kevin Ashton, a British technology pioneer, who happened to be working at Proctor & Gamble in supply chain optimization. But the actual idea of connected devices has been around longer – at least since the 1970s when the idea was referred to as “embedded internet” or “pervasive computing.”
In the 21st century, we have witnessed the proliferation of connected cars, homes, and countless other devices. Smart home devices allow for remote programing, remote function control, and remote diagnostic of the home’s various traditional systems. Lighting, home security, heating, and A/C are all controlled through home automation hubs, smartphones, or voice assistants (Hello, Alexa). Given the growing connection of so many everyday devices, it was only a matter of time until it reached our clothing: specifically, the creation of garments that are rich in data, provide user feedback, and can be connected to other digital devices.
Advances in micro-sensor technology and textiles are setting the stage for further disruption in how we not only wear but also engage with our clothes. Innovative disruption in the textile industry has traditionally occurred slowly. For tens of thousands of years, humanity has relied primarily on animal pelts and plant fibers like linen, cotton, leather, silk, and hemp as materials for clothing.
In the early 20th century, nylons and polyesters brought in the synthetic textile era. At present, we are now in the early stages of a second-wave disruption within the textiles industry. With continued advances in material sciences and fabric weave techniques, textiles are being developed with unique properties for specialized applications.
Fabrics that have specific characteristics for ventilation, heating, cooling, wicking, anti-microbial, abrasion, and impact resistance are already available in modern apparel products. Becoming more common is the placement of micro-sensors woven into the weave of textiles allowing for detection of many physiological functions at precise levels.
The best-known wearable products are smart watches and bracelets – produced by companies like Fitbit, Jawbone, and Apple – that act as activity trackers and biometric monitors. These products have become increasingly popular due to the booming fitness trend and the unique user experience they offer through digital interaction with the data gathered. For example, a person wearing a Fitbit produces information in the form of heart rate, oxygen intake, respiration, and how many steps they have taken. The Fitbit takes the data, analyzes it, and feeds actionable information back to the wearer through a specially designed user interface.
Smart Clothing Tech
Given the continued innovation with digital devices, sensors, wireless communications, material sciences, and textiles, it was only a matter of time before the clothes on our backs joined the act. And while fitness and personal health trackers have more or less co-opted the term “wearables,” it’s also often used interchangeably with smart clothes by the general public and the industries that make them.
Smart clothes, also referred to as high-tech clothing, smart garments, or electronic textiles, have been defined as “clothing items that have been enhanced with technology to add functionality beyond that of the traditional use.” Some smart clothes use advanced textiles with interwoven or printed circuitry, while others implement sensors, haptics, and additional hardware to provide smart functionality. Many smart clothes can connect to an app or program on a secondary device using Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.
For instance, the Mobile Warming Technology platform, built into their Fieldsheer line, features heating systems in jackets, pants, base layers, socks, gloves, and other accessories. The technology found in Mobile Warming garments utilizes a sophisticated power and control system with integrated electrical circuitry, wireless 2-way communications, and a garment management Bluetooth app.
A report from Cientifica Research examines the markets for textile-based wearable technologies, the companies producing them, and the enabling technologies. The report identifies three distinct generations of textile wearable technologies:
- “First generation” products that attach a sensor to the apparel. This approach is currently taken by sportswear brands such as Adidas, Nike, and Under Armour.
- “Second generation” products that embed the sensor in the garment, as demonstrated by current products from Samsung, Alphabet, Ralph Lauren, and Flex.
- In “third generation” wearables, the garment actually is the sensor. Growing numbers of companies are creating biometric, pressure, and strain sensors for this purpose.
The result of these technological advancements is articles of clothing that not only measure bodily functions and performance but can actually help the wearer improve both. The sectors affected by these innovations are diverse. In the athletics industry, we see smart socks that monitor pressure points on your foot to yoga pants with built-in haptic (relating to the sense of touch, in particular relating to the perception and manipulation of objects using the senses of touch and proprioception) feedback motors to refine and adjust your pose. The healthcare industry benefits from garments with biometric measurements to gain real-time data regarding the health of some of the more vulnerable among us, like post-op patients, expectant mothers, senior citizens, or diabetics. No doubt, the capabilities of today’s smart clothing and electronic textiles are remarkable, yet the future continues to be unimaginable.
While disruption comes off with a slightly negative connotation, one indicator of the positive effects of disruption is the value created in the economy from the latest innovations. A recent study from Report Buyer states, “The smart wearable market was valued at a sale of 181.51 million units and is anticipated to register a CAGR of 19.38-percent over the forecast period (2019-2024).” This shows the advantage wearables and smart clothing have as being disruptive in the apparel industry.
The same is true with smart clothing. In fact, according to Avnet, one of the world’s largest distributors of electronic components and embedded solutions, smart clothing are being touted as the next big market move for IoT. In 2015, the e-textiles market was reported to be worth $100 million. But as demand for accessible wearable technology grows and mass adoption lowers price points, the market is estimated to grow to $3 billion in the next 10 years.
Of course, with the emergence of advanced, innovative material constructions, real-time analytics, and machine learning, the boundaries of IoT continue to evolve. And given the rapid pace of technology, it’s likely that the scale of IoT today will not adequately cover the spectrum of what it will represent even a few years from now.
But without question, wearables – and specifically electronic textiles, aka “smart clothing – have positioned themselves as the newest, and perhaps brightest, star in the IoT universe.
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