If you visit CES, the huge consumer electronics show in Las Vegas in January, you’ll find smart versions of almost everything: cars, refrigerators, windows, toothbrushes, glasses (of course), pillows, and sex toys(!). But amongst this cornucopia of IoT (Internet of Things, where everything is connected to the web), there are very few items of clothing. There were robots to fold your clothes, but the future of a digitally connected suit on every urban commuter is still a long way off.
We have long been promised the added value of digitally functional clothing, with innovations in lighting, vital statistics monitoring, pollution control, “invisibility” (not quite an invisibility cloak à la Harry Potter, but close enough to make it newsworthy), device charging and touch-sensitive properties such as the collaboration between Google and Levis. We have the ability to channel power and commands through ultrafine conductive yarns such as Bekaert’s, or EY technologies. Conductive pathways can also be printed onto the surface of the textile or garment like graphics.
Basic flexible screens are available for our clothes, as are fabric, printed, or even skinlike touch surfaces. Battery and renewable (solar) power are easily adaptable to our clothing, though with some limitations in color, flexibility and weight. Good examples include materials such as Jenax, which has good power and flexibility, but tends to stay in its bent form, FlexEL has lower power but maintains its uncreased and flat form after repeated flexing and Panasonic’s flexible Li-Ion battery. Heating of the fabric surface, for extreme weather apparel, or simply to add warmth to extremities is possible and widely available through systems such as DuPont Intexar — a powered smart clothing technology for on-body heating, Schoeller’s E-soft shell fabrics, or WarmX heated undergarments.
Despite the major development and breakthroughs in the world of e-textiles, there remain two challenges to the widespread adoption of these types of systems. The first is technological — most clothing is still produced by hand using techniques that wouldn’t seem out of place in Victorian England, or for that matter, Egypt in 30 BCE. Yes, textiles are produced in highly advanced processes out of space age materials, but the shirt I am wearing was made essentially the same way as my great-great-grandfather Albert’s.
Connected clothing requires marrying this age-old human managed process of sewing to tech that is more used to being constructed by robots in a sterile environment, and you can imagine it results in serious operational obstacles. Also, Albert was a much skinnier man than me, with shorter arms, meaning that his shirt’s shape was different, and yet my phone is the same size and shape as my daughter’s and likely the same as yours — see the problem?
Connecting the conductive yarns from a shoulder section to an arm is not as simple as simply stitching it together, and you can’t splice the two yarns as you would two copper wires at a junction box, and even if you print the wires on the surface rather than incorporate them into the fabric, stretch, aesthetics and the complications of printing over the surface of an entire garment complicate the issue. There are advances that are offering a potential shift in this archaic process — Sewbo’s robotically sewn T-shirt for one — but it may be a number of years ahead for most of our clothing, and many of the connectivity challenges still remain.
Add to that a fundamental aspect of fashion — I want to wear what I want, when I want — and you have your second challenge. Creating this type of functionality in a T-shirt or an outerwear jacket works until the T-shirt gets sweaty or dirty or you just don’t feel like wearing it that day, or when you return inside to the warm and the jacket is removed. All the computing power and connectedness in the world isn’t going to matter if the garment just doesn’t work with your current outfit. What works for medical, sport, and military needs, where function is paramount, comfort is not always a decisive factor, and the garment is worn continually, flies in the face of the fundamentals of our style decisions.
Thus, any functionality the garment offers needs to be either seamlessly transferable back to your phone or watch once you take the garment off (the volume controls for your music that were on your sleeve immediately transfer back to the watch when you hang your jacket over the back of your chair), or be an essential part of your outfit to begin with, such as with the controls added to jackets for skiing where you are very unlikely to remove that outer layer when on the slopes.
Again and again, the promise of connected clothing relies upon specific activities (commuting, sports, etc.) rather than what we use most of our clothes for: work, play, getting coffee, visiting a restaurant, bingeing on a show, or all of the above at different times of the day.
So perhaps the future for these technologies lies in precisely these areas, those of functional necessity such as medical, military and professional sports, and specific pursuits in particular environments such as winter sports or cycling to work. Let us keep our archaically produced clothing free of tech and free of the concerns we have for our current devices and gadgets — is it charged? Did it just ping me? Where did I leave it? And damn, did I just put it through the wash? If the digital world must encroach on this arena, maybe we can just keep it to accessories, such as my favorite light up scarf.
Andrew Dent, Ph.D, is the executive vice president of research at Material ConneXion.