This semester I’m taking a wearables technology class taught by philospher and designer Despina Papadopoulos. Part of our first assignment was to read “Wearable Electronics and Smart Textiles: A Critical Review”, a paper published in 2014 that reviews recent advances in smart textiles, which are fabrics that have electronic components woven into them. I’m interested in the possibility of seeing garments that are seamlessly integrated with electronic devices we use in our daily lives—as opposed to the obtrusive, highly visible look of most wearables today—and how this evolution can precipitate broader changes in hardware interface and interaction.
Most attempts to fabricate smart textiles are undertaken in research labs and tested as prototypes. Electronic textiles are slowly making their way into the commercial realm due to the establishment of wearables as part of integrated systems in consumers’ daily routines. The popularity of such systems implies that there is broad consumer interest interest in the “quantified self” movement by collecting and analyzing self-driven data. The sports apparel industry is leading the way in the production of smart textiles because it has identified a niche in which consumers are eager to try new methods for measuring their physical activities, often paying steep prices for so-called “smart” garments. The sports industry has historically understood that high investments over long periods of time can align profitable new technologies, products and market standards. This seamless way of tracking daily life empowers the user by introducing him/her to integrated systems that will boost self-awareness, making health data more accessible and understandable to the public.
The consolidation of materials such as conductive fabric, yarn and threads, combined with different kinds of textile manufacturing and treatment, has made it possible for university research labs in Europe, Asia and United States to develop a wide range of electronic woven components. Yarn-based transistors, integrated weaved circuits, textile capacitors, flexible circuit boards, biometrics, and human monitoring sensors propelled the design of smart garments as diverse as musical jackets with fabric keyboards, gloves that sense hand gestures, wearable antennas/RFID tags, thermoelectric generator fabric powered by body heat, LED-lit dresses, and health-tracking accessories.
Since the latter has been most readily adopted by the general public, its presence and establishment in the market is relevant to understanding where wearables development will go in the future. On “How a Fitbit May Make You a Bit Fit,” Alex Hutchinson remarks that more than 13 million fitness trackers were sold last year – more than the double of 2014’s total. Whether or not the device’s feedback numbers are accurate, the fact that a significant amount of people are wearing these devices proves that self-monitoring is an approach that at least in the short term is pushing users habit towards a healthier and fitter routine.
Under Armour recently partnered with IBM to launch a new generation of health tracker accessories that are fully integrated with already existing tracker apps. All the data collected by UA fitbit + heart rate monitor + sneakers or the device of your choice is shareable among UA Record App, Endomondo, MapMyFitness, MyFitnessPal (those last three ones were acquired by UA before they launched the Health Box) and even with other competitors’ apps. This partnership is taking fitness experience to a whole new level, by introducing the self-driven data as a medium that integrates across different systems and gives users more self-monitoring data.
During the class, I had the opportunity to get in touch with designers and labs that are developing wearables technology. Amanda Parkes, head of Technology & Research at Manufacture New York, gave us a guided tour at the new fashion hub in New York’s industry city area. The company’s mission is to bring American fashion industry back home. From design consultancy to production, the company offers full product development / launch of a fashion label. The company is launching a partnership between designers and research labs around the country to jump-start the usage of new technologies within the future of fashion,.
Tom Martin, engineer, professor and wearable computing researcher, talked to our class from a computing standpoint about the current applications of discoveries within e-textiles. Focused on contextual computing, he spoke about his concern over designing products that works for everybody and don’t need tailoring. Having worked in the wearables research lab at Virginia Tech for at least 15 years now, he talked about how their prototyping materials are still the same, methodologically simulating and prototyping on loop. For him, there are two big challenges we face related to the e-textile industry. Firstly, the two biggest industries interested in wearables, health and sports, are directing research along distinct paths. Even though both approaches use a human-centered design process and the internet of things as a wearable-changing tool, they have different goals in terms of the product lifecycle and public. Martin says that it is very motivational industry-wise when fashion brands put fun projects on the market, but he believes the success of wearables will come from more than just the product. The real opportunity relies on the services such technologies can provide through the garments and accessories. This question leads to the second obstacles to be faced: What is the real meaning of all those measures?
It is evident that there is interest in developing smart textiles, but we have yet to see wearables emerge as a mainstream, commercially viable technology in the fashion world. There are many initiatives to test out feasible applications of wearables into integrated systems, but so far the biggest advances we’ve seen have taken place in health and sports industries, with the latter standing out for reaching a broader audience with innovative wearables-software integration. Both industries have available resources to spend on research, which means that they are constantly generating new alternatives, but the evolution of wearable technology has been happening gradually over the past ten years. Since the boom of fitness trackers integrated with apps, however, there has been more demand from the market to create a next new generation of wearables.
There are plenty of challenges that industries interested in the development of smart textiles are and will keep on facing. They should be concerned not only with developing garments that bring comfort, effortless tracking, and data analysis, but also with how smart textiles can be designed to give feedback that goes beyond the raw data, how it can tell the user ways of improving results, or even how it can automatically respond to make those improvements. Such changes will, I believe, make the wearable user experience more responsive and organic.