Robotic apparel might sound like sci-fi fare or maybe superhero attire from a Marvel film. But there’s one company that aims to make it reality — and do it with some style.
Meet Seismic, a Menlo Park-based wearable start-up that hit the stage Thursday at TechCrunch Disrupt to introduce its latest — a high-tech robotic garment that gives the user an extra set of wearable muscles.
Its powered clothing acts like a cross between the Iron Man suit, Lululemon bodywear and a REI base layer. Unlike with Tony Stark’s tin can proposition, the discreet robotics feature no metallic external casing, hinges or creaky joints. In classic robotics, there would be metal drive trains. But with Seismic’s powered clothes, the action is textile based. The mechanics sit beneath a covering of soft performance fabric, with the system contracting or relaxing fibers to give the wearer more power and stability.
“They’re like tendons supporting the muscles up against the body, so all the load transfer is occurring there, as well as through the muscles,” Rich Mahoney, Seismic’s chief executive officer and founder, explained to WWD.
The system features processors and sensors, and connects to the internet over Wi-Fi or LTE and to a smartphone app via Bluetooth. The garment is smart enough to make adjustments on its own based on the wearer’s state or how he or she is standing or moving — Seismic refers to the experience as “symbiosis” — but the user can also change the amount of support or strength using a mobile app, which also tracks metrics.
Together, it all works to beef up the person’s physical capabilities. Think everyday use cases, like help in staying active through post-workout soreness or in physically demanding jobs that require standing for long periods. When weak muscles need a boost, assistance is a matter of putting on a piece of clothing.
The natural path forward for a souped-up leotard with such assistive-tech potential might lie in health care. And indeed, Seismic sees how the garment could help people like seniors or physical therapy patients.
But, the company insists, it’s not medical equipment. It’s apparel.
“They’re not wearing robots, they’re wearing clothing,” Mahoney said. “Our mission, our opportunity, is to add value and functionality to clothing, while still maintaining people’s relationship to comfort, aesthetic and emotion.”
There’s another word that describes Seismic’s focus: fashion.
Physically, the garment looks like a form-fitting leotard or singlet with a few extra parts visible at the thighs and lower back. The entire item was designed to be worn under clothing and weighs just 2.5 kilograms.
The slim profile and light weight are a feat in themselves, as robotics can be a bulky affair. But that’s the challenge for Chris Gadway, Seismic’s vice president of design.
“People in the robotics industry can’t believe how small we got this,” said Gadway, a design expert that hails from places like Nike and The North Face, as well as Motorola’s former wearables division. “But fashion people keep telling us, ‘No — it has to be thinner!’ So we kept working on it.”
Gadway’s prominent role in the product’s development speaks to the company’s desire to establish as much cred in fashion as it has in technology. When it comes to the latter, it already has a lot. Mahoney was the director of robotics at research firm SRI International, where his team developed the lightweight, robotic muscles under a program funded by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, aka DARPA. Mahoney spun Seismic out of SRI, and has raised a total of $22.5 million across three funding rounds to date. Most recently, the company took on tech and talent from its acquisition of Palo Alto-based Lumo Bodytech Inc.
Now, the team wants to make a splash in the apparel sector. The focus is evident, even in the way Seismic describes the product as part of its “spring 2019 collection.” The robotic undergarment will go direct-to-consumer, hitting the market by the end of this year.
Between now and then, the company has a massive task in front of it. It’s not only forging a new fusion of fashion and robotics, but defining a product category that hasn’t really existed outside of a laboratory. To do it, Seismic needs to control the entire ecosystem and the experience, Mahoney said. That means developing and refining its hardware and software stack, alongside focusing on garment production.
Not that he wants to go it completely alone. In fact, Seismic is pursuing talks with apparel companies — “major names you’ve heard of,” the ceo teased — and those potential partners have shown deep interest in either investing or working with the startup.
Fashion and tech have already proved themselves as a dynamic duo, carving out new paths with e-commerce, artificial intelligence, smartwatches and other buzzworthy pursuits. Where tech innovates, fashion resonates, adding polish and panache that gets the public excited.
That’s just what Seismic is hoping for. “This is a suit that should exist,” Mahoney said. “The technology is here, and it just needs a dedicated [effort] with the right background, the right resources to accomplish it.”