Gussied Up with Smart Fashion

Good Design is Invisible Design

It’s often said that good design is invisible design. This rings especially true in the burgeoning category of smart clothing and e-textiles. Technologists are eager to tout their latest whizbang gadgetry but a word of a caution — consumers shop for fashion, not sensors. Adoption won’t come because of cool sensors. Fashion has to appeal to their visceral sensibilities and individualism.

Amanda Parkes, an alumna of MIT Media Lab in kinetic interaction design, states that what we wear reflects culture and personal expression. Parkes echoes that best design is invisible: “It’s the ‘Intel inside’ model; it’s the secret million dollar product that everyone else is using.”

Burberry, Ralph Lauren, and Richard Nicoll are experimenting with fashion tech but they represent the minority. In the world of aesthetics, style, and glamour, it’s less about what a garment can do, and more about how it makes you look and feel. For wearables to be embraced by fashion, it has to disappear into the fabric.

Researchers and startups are spearheading the effort to miniaturize and weave conductive materials into fabrics, from Sensilk’s conductive fabric, Du Pont’s stretchable and washable electronic ink, Hong Kong Polytechnic’s elastic fabric circuit board threads, KAIST’s zinc oxide nanomaterials for piezoelectric power generators, UC Berkeley’s flexible pulse oximeter sensor to MC10's flexible computers with wireless antennas, temperature and heart rate sensors, and battery that can be adapted to smart garments.

Bullish on Smart Garments

In the not too distant future, Parkes envisions wearables covering the entire body. “There is a limitation to the number of hard things you’re going to wear on your body; it’s basically jewelry. But if you have a softer system, like a scarf — there are more opportunities.”

“Clothing is the most universal behaviour. It is the one type of wearable form factor that you’ve been wearing your whole life. Textile is a very valuable form factor when it comes to wearable — it is malleable,” according to Omsignal CEO Stephane Marceau, speaking at Le Web 2014 in Paris.

According to Gartner, smart garments will outpace all other types of wearables, growing from 0.1 million units in 2014 to 26 million units in 2016. Hap Klopp, founder of North Face, believes that “Fabrics will generate more data than devices in the next 10 years.” Many analysts estimate large-scale adoption by 2020.

Venture capital money is flowing into smart clothing. OMsignal, with its Biometric Smartwear shirts, has raised a $10 million Series A round led by Bessemer Venture Partners. Sensoria, formerly named Heapsylon, raised $5 million from Italy’s Reply SpA to extend their smart clothes and sensor platform to third-parties to develop and manufacture smart clothing products.

Wider the Body Coverage, the Smarter

The problem with wearable devices on the wrist, neck or an appendage is that the data set is localized to only that area. Algorithms then need to compensate by creating a symmetrical interpretation of the body movement. In this obtuse world, when you wave goodbye, it appears that both hands are waving. And of course, we can only guess what the rest of the body is doing.

A garment approach, on the other hand, covers your entire body (or certainly more than a wrist or foot) to create a 3D vector of a wearer’s body movements. This results in better understanding of the body language and context. It also opens up the ability to use natural body motion, beyond just the finger or wrist, as a controller to interact with apps, systems and your surrounding.

Accurately constructing body movement is no trivial matter. Just ask the makers of Madden NFL. 3D body movements are laboriously constructed using a motion-capture suit that translates an athlete’s movements into bone and joint movements on a digital skeleton. Then hundreds of man hours are spent converting these images and data into 3D animation with realistic movements.

Interpreting Your Body Language

Now you may be wondering. Why in the world would I want smart clothing to know what I am doing and feeling? The answer is context. Mehrabian and Ferris’ study indicates that 55% of communication is body language, 38% is the tone of voice, and 7% is the actual words spoken, accounting for context, clusters, and congruence in interpretation. Affective computing, an interdisciplinary field that spans computer science, psychology, and cognitive science, tries to recognize and interpret the emotional state of humans. Body posture, gestures, eye movements, touch and the use of space can be used to detect the particular emotional state of a user. For instance, our gait says a lot about our emotions — that we’re in a rush, high spirits, deep in thought, low energy or perhaps downcast. An intelligent machine learning system can recognize these body movements, analyze for context and respond in a meaningful way.

Then there is physiological monitoring that collects data on the wearer’s pulse, heart rate, body temperature, blood volume pulse, galvanic skin response, and other biological data to determine the performance, health and stress level. Quanttus, Olive and Cardiio are some of the startups leading in this space.

Stress Management

An area that smart clothing can add significant value is in stress management. Awareness and haptic feedback from smart clothing can help reduce stress, unless of course you don’t mind walking around with Thync Vibes on your head. According to the NPR/ Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/ Harvard School of Public Health Burden of Stress in America Survey 2014, people who report experiencing a great deal of stress in the past month say it affected their family life (75%), their health (74%), and their social life (68%). Those who managed stress through activities such as regularly spending time outdoors (94%), spending time on a hobby (93%), regularly exercised (89%), regularly meditated or prayed (85%), and regularly spent time with family and friends (83%) were better able to cope with stress. That means that invisible sensors in fabrics can not only detect stress levels but through haptic feedback or an app notify the wearer to take context-appropriate steps to reduce stress.

In sum, good design is invisible. This statement couldn’t be more true for smart clothing. Sensors need to be in the backdrop, not the foreground. When they become invisible, then the true potential of smart clothing and its data analytics can be realized.

For entrepreneurs, the focus should be on sensor miniaturization and SDK platform to enable fashion brands and designers to do what they do best — emotion-evoking fashion.

Originally published on the Examiner on January 28, 2015. Author Scott Amyx.

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