Exploring Technologies Destined To Change the Clothes We Wear

Did you know that clothing was one of the first wearable extensible used and developed by humankind?  Well, it’s true. Our clothes are considered to be the most natural extension of our body, not only are they evolving, but they are taking on a new direction into a future where handheld devices will disappear, and reappear as invisible technology in the clothes we wear.

When it comes to the current state of play, the truth of the matter is that we are headed in a direction were textile yarns will replace conductive materials and intelligent fabrics will most likely be replaced by sensor technology. Heapsylon CEO Davide Vigano believes that at the moment “most devices are glorified pedometers that come in colours,” and that “the garment is the computer”.  Could there be truth to what Vigano says? I think that the experts in this field might tend to agree with his analysis.

Creating New Markets by Disrupting Existing Ones

Although there has been a lot of development in smart clothes, it is still a  relatively new and emerging space. Poised to revolutionize the fashion industry, one excellent example of the first commercially available wearable tech garment to go mainstream, is the Levi’s Commuter Trucker jacket. A collaboration between Jacquard and Google, the jacket was launched in late 2017 and was given a celebratory reception from both the fashion and technology industries.

Although the Levi Commuter jacket managed to give mainstream consumers a sneak peek into how their clothes could serve a purpose beyond keeping them clothed, it is still hard to predict which direction the smart clothing industry could be headed. This is mainly because we are still at a stage where very few ideas have managed to evolve from pioneering prototypes into an actual functional garment.

On the development of integrated smart fabrics a recent report by Research and Markets prophesied that the global smart textiles market size would reach $5.55 billion by 2025.  It is a forecast that supports the future reality that emerging smart fabrics are fated to deliver new and direct user experiences.

Capable of enhancing our natural abilities, the smart textiles space has given birth to innovations like 4D printed material, interactive yarn, hydrophobic textiles and lab-grown leathers.  Strongly embraced by sectors like health care, military and sports, there seems to be an obvious preference for nanotextiles over connected fabrics. I think that one of the main reasons could be because nanotechnology-based textiles offer invisible technology that improves fabric properties without significantly changing the overall feel of the material.  

When it comes to how new markets are disrupting existing ones, I think Minyoung Suh’s approach to the evolution of intelligent clothing sums it up best. Suh came up with a system that classifies smart fabrics into four stages. Suh identifies the first stage as taking place between the 1980s and 1997, which was a period when the idea of a wearable computer was born and where clothing provided a platform to computing devices. The second stage, 1998 to 2001, saw an increase in the number of collaborative projects, like the partnership between Philips Electronics and Levi Strauss. The third stage, 2002 to 2005, focused on the miniaturisation of electronics.

Currently, we are in the fourth stage. Suh explains that this step, which takes place from 2006 to the present day, is all about intense development in the miniaturisation and smart materials space. Also, this is a stage where we have been witnessing the maturity of wearables entering the market.

Smart Clothes With Superpowers

Still, in its early stages, but growing at a faster rate than expected, the progression of intelligent garments has been fueled by breakthroughs that are addressing unsolved problems. Although some of those difficulties are being solved by material solutions, yet to leave the labs,  we cannot dispute that the intervention by science has given clothes ‘superpowers’ of convenience. It is this future forward shift in the textiles industry that is responsible for introducing us to discoveries like the triboelectric material, the first energy-harvesting fabric capable of converting kinetic energy to electrical power from multiple sources like wind, rain and human movement. Designed by weaving together silver fibres and lyocell rayon, the unique material has been developed to work with a myriad of applications in wearable technology and self-powered sensors.

Other technologies destined to change the clothes we wear include gas detecting textiles dreamed up by engineers at Tufts University. The fabric is capable of effectively trapping dye to the thread, rather than relying on binding chemistry. Another wow super material is metatextile. Knitted from a yarn of triacetate cellulose, the smart fabric will proficiently turn your clothes into an automatic thermoregulation system that is responsive to the wearer’s thermal discomfort. Then there is an innovative material known as AI Silk. The smart fabric is spun from raw silk and turned into a conductive wearable using a dyeing technique that is capable of producing a robust and highly absorbent silk. Lastly, there is Pireta, a product which will enable electronic circuits and components to be assembled and interconnected directly on a textile, a procedure that will have no impact on the handle, drape, stretch or breathability of the fabric.

One Step Closer To Going Mainstream

It is no secret that material design promises a future where smart fabrics are likely to be the next step in extending our physical, social and cognitive abilities. But first, we will need to overcome challenges like durability, energy, flexibility, washability and cost, not forgetting comfort, eco-design and of course security, privacy and safety.

With mainstream adoption on the horizon, smart clothes are already being considered the wearable solution of the future comparable to the smartphone and smartwatch.  But if wearable technologies do the job, why do we need smart fabrics? “Our bodies are in touch with textiles 24 hours a day. Truly wearable apps need to be implemented into things we are already wearing,” believes Akseli Reho, CEO of Clothing+, which has been mass producing textile integrated sensors since 2002.

When it comes to which smart textile innovation has the potential to make smart clothing go mainstream, I think that the real game changers will be those whose innovation provides a service, like the Sensoria® smart sock. It is an intelligent fabric product that offers convenience to its wearer. The sock’s USP is the ability to coach runners in real time by monitoring running technique along with speed, calories, altitude, and distance. On another note, imagine every season, instead of replacing our clothes with the latest must have pieces, we instead upgrade our garments with the latest capabilities. Now, wouldn’t that be a trend worth investing in?

Wearable technology is on the cusp of a major transformation.  It is evolving from rigid devices to smart textiles. Going forward, I think that the days of the cumbersome and awkward wearable tech device are limited, I foresee connectable and functional clothes becoming part of our everyday wardrobe, just like the Apple Watch.

Written by Muchaneta Kapfunde


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