The challenge of wearable innovation

Wearables have made their way to consumers through smartwatches, fitness bands, jewelry and accessories. The next level of wearables, wearable garments, are yet to come but market implementation is delayed by “the Wearable Gap”.

This whitepaper discusses the history and future of wearable garments and which challenges need to be overcome to make wearable garments widely available.

  1. The human body as interface
  2. The Wearable Gap: What is happening in the wearable market
  3. So, how to cross the Wearable Gap ?

The human body as interface

The human body is our user interface with the outside world. Our senses help us to subconsciously create an image of the world around us, our brain uses all these types of information to assess the current situation, make decisions and plan our next move (figure 1).

Figure 1: The whole human body as canvas for system interactions.

Unfortunately, almost all products use visual and/or auditory interfaces to interact and give information: Think about it: your phone, laptop, television, navigation system, watch and so on.

By using the whole body as an interface, we open up opportunities to transfer information in a more direct, discrete and intuitive way (Jansen, 2008), (Haas & Van Erp, 2014). A tap on your right shoulder and you know immediately that you have to turn your body to see who wants your attention.

Using the sense of touch opens up a new (sensory) channel of opportunities.

Simultaneously, technological developments such as miniaturization of electronic components has created opportunities to make our computer/ devices smaller and smaller, from desktop computer, to laptop, to smartphone to smartwatch — and now also to garment (figure 2).

Figure 2: Miniaturisation of electronic components from dekstop computers to wearables.

At this moment we are able to integrate the power of a smartphone into garments, which allows us to add intelligence to garments so we can interact directly with the human body.

“The human body as a canvas for system interactions”

What is happening in the wearable market:

How wearables have evolved

Looking back at the image on the previous page, we see that technology developments have evolved from desktop computer through smartphones, smartwatches into wearables. Looking closer at the wearables domain, we can clearly distinguish 3 phases of wearables by how wearable they are and the level of integration of electronics.

I. Wearable accessories

The first wearables, small devices that can be worn such as smartwatches, heart beat measuring devices, activity trackers etc. are adopted by the mass (figure 3). Wearable systems (a device with sensor and smartphone application) are used by professional athletes and are even getting accepted within hospitals to aid (chronic) illnesses such as diabetes to track health over time.

Figure 3: Wearable accessories: Activity trackers [image from www.buzzfeed.com]

II. Partly integrated electronics

The second generation of wearables are just starting to hit the market. Electronics are not worn as an accessory but are -partly- integrated in the garment. For example, Levi’s and Google (jacquard project) launched their commuter jacket last summer (2017) with integrated electronics serving as a smartphone interface (figure 4). The gesture input touch sensor is directly integrated into the fabric, however microprocessor, battery and Bluetooth communication are still in a detachable enclosure. Similar products are made by e.g. OMsignal and Hexoskin.

It’s a smart solution since it enables early commercialization of these wearables, working around challenges such as washability, robustness and producibility. These challenges are what’s keeping engineers and tech companies busy, and also lead to slow market introduction of fully integrated wearable garments.

Figure 4: Partly integrated electronics: Levi’s x Google Jacquard Commuter Jacket

III. Fully integrated electronics: Wearable garments

The next phase will be garments with fully integrated electronics. Microprocessors, batteries and all electronic components will be permanently adhered into the garments. The total garment can be washed, with all electronics inside. Technical challenges as washability and robustness as well as commercial hurdles (high cost price and low market demand in consumer markets) stand between the market introduction that is expected from 2018 onwards. Furthermore, collaborations between traditional textile manufacturing and high tech electronics production need to be set up in order to produce these types of wearables.

Consumer excitement

At first, consumer excitement about wearable electronics was really high. Wouldn’t it be great to receive my texts on my smartwatch, gather more data to improve my physique or improve (sports) performances? Everyone gives you 100+ new ideas whenever you tell them what wearables you are currently working on.

It was easy to imagine how these gadgets would benefit and at a reasonably price many consumers embraced these new Fitbits and activity trackers en masse.

Fashion designers, design visionaries as well as larger companies shared the vision of truly wearable electronics embedded in garments. With evolving technology, these concepts improved with every generation: Smaller, smarter, more data, better performance, etc. Their futuristic ideas suddenly seemed (technologically) feasible and through the news consumers were promised these wearables would hit the market soon.

People get easily excited about those concepts, seeing how it could improve their lives and performances. However, the current wearables have difficulties in meeting up with these expectations. They are developed as one-off arts-and-crafts, not robust enough or cannot be produced in high quantities. These wearables are not yet able to be sold in high quantities or are simply just too expensive to make a valid business case. No consumer is going to pay €800+ for a “simple” shirt.

Some products ideas made it into the market as “partly integrated electronic” garments, yet with big disclaimers regarding life-span or made available in small numbers.

Since the price of fully integrated wearable garments remained high and time-to-market is taking too long, the first excitement of end-users about wearables passed. Combined with the slow development of scalable wearables and previously discussed technological challenges, the whole hype around the wearable tech business started to slow down, leading to “the Wearable Gap”.

Figure 5: The Wearable Gap

The Wearable Gap:

Technological challenges and decreased consumer excitement create “the Wearable Gap”, the vacuum between the real lift-off of Wearable garments (figure 5).

On the other side of the gap, as Gartner predicts, the market potential of smart garments is still expected to be the fastest growing category in wearable technology in the next 10 years.

So, how to cross the Wearable Gap?

First, we need to pick the right road. Currently a big focus has been on consumer wearables where we saw a decrease in excitement due to high cost price, slow time to market and relatively little added value in relation to the cost price. The road through professional wearables may be the way to go as history already proved in developments for e.g. NASA or the Army which are now commonly available for consumers.

Second, we need to tackle technical issues through some real engineering work. The next chapter will discuss what technological developments are happening and how these challenges can be tackled.

Picking the right road: Professional wearables

As history tells us; many modern technologies find their origin in either R&D for space or military operations. Things like GPS, drones, the internet and other technologies find their origin in development for professional markets and have trickled down to consumers.

When looking at wearables, we already pointed out that consumer excitement decreased. The road through professional wearables may be the way to go. When a wearable clearly adds value, by e.g. increasing safety or performance a higher cost-price is acceptable.

Cross-contamination from consumer products to professional markets also happens: Commercial technologies such as smartphones are making its way to professional environments like the Army or firefighting. Technologies are embraced when they can truly add value.

Needless to say, developing wearables for professional markets raises the bar of technological readiness and robustness.

Opportunities for professional wearables

The opportunity for professional wearables is clear, yet until this moment there has been minimal market introduction of fully integrated wearable garments for professionals. The Mission Navigation Belt, with fully integrated microprocessor, battery, GPS, compass and 8 vibration motors, used for covert communication and tactile navigation could become one of the first professional wearables to enter the market in 2019 (figure 6).

Figure 6: Mission Navigation Belt by Elitac

Tackle technical issues

First, we will take a closer look at the current state-of-art of wearable technology; what are the main directions of wearable development and what are the biggest challenges. Hereafter we’ll provide insights in how to solve these issues in order to make wearables feasible for the bigger market.

What are wearable engineers doing?

When looking at the technological developments, we specifically look at wearable garments with fully integrated electronics.

In general, integrated wearables contain a “processing unit” that houses processors, battery, charging, connectivity and sometimes sensors. These processing units are connected by “textile mimicking” wiring (in multiple variants) to for example extra sensors (to measure movement, heart rate) or actuators like LED or vibration motors elsewhere on the body.

Basically, there are three main solutions of how wiring and long-distance connections are made:

  • Conductive yarns, that can be used in knits, wovens etc. [Commuter jacket Levi’s x Google Jaqcuard].
  • Conductive Inks, screen printed onto the fabric. [Imec, Holst Centre].
  • Conductive patches or wiring, embedded into a film, laminated on top of the fabric. [Elitac, Clothing+ ].

There are some benefits and disadvantages to every technique, however none of them currently excels the others.

Nevertheless, they face similar challenges regarding scalability and producibility (figure 7).

Figure 7: Main wearable electronic techniques and shared technical hurdles

The biggest technical hurdles in wearables:

Wearable developers are still working on tackling the main technological difficulties:

  • Robustness of electronic connections and strain resistance, also in heavy use over time.
  • Waterproofing of battery and connectors, so they are washable and do not need to be taken out of garments.
  • Power management within the garment; allowing it to work all day — without the need of charging.
  • Sizing; Cover different garment sizes and gender differences with a limited set of electronic circuits.
  • Producibility and scalability; Working with techniques that allow for mass production, with reproducible and controllable processes.

Solving technical challenges in order to close the Wearable Gap

In order to be able to solve these technical challenges, we cannot rely on single success stories. If a solution looks promising at first sight, comprehensive testing is critical in order to succeed in creating robust and reliable wearables for consumer markets. Obviously, such a process requires time intensive R&D with lots of costly sample making and prototyping.

The multi-disciplinary character of wearable development creates extra difficulties regarding prototyping facilities. Most companies are either specialized in electronics development or textiles and production processes are dedicated towards this competence. A dedicated environment such as Elitac’s Wearable Lab (opening in 2018) enables development of electronics, textiles and integration at one facility, with shared knowledge of all disciplines.

Leaping the Wearable Gap in simple steps

Current products generally use visual or auditory interfaces for product interaction. The human body — and specifically the human skin — creates a much wider opportunity for system interactions by providing intuitive, discrete and personal input and feedback. Research (Jansen, 2008), (Haas & Van Erp, 2014) has proven that for example haptic feedback lowers reaction times and is perceived as an intuitive means for system interactions. Furthermore, the human body as user interface is getting more and more embraced by fashion designers and industrial designers.

Different types of wearables have entered the market, simple wearable accessories and fitness trackers are embraced by the mass. Partly integrated wearables such as Levi’s — Google Jacquard Commuter jacket are starting to enter the market, yet they still have removable control units and come with disclaimers regarding washability. Due to a long time-to-market, limited robustness and high cost-prices, initial consumer excitement is decreased. Hence the “Wearable Gap” between the promising opportunities of wearables yet slowed down by lowered consumer excitement and technical challenges.

Crossing this Wearable Gap in the most efficient way can be done by first picking the right road. We see that many consumer products, such as smartphones, make their way to professional markets (e.g. firefighters or military). These kind of products clearly show added value in making their work easier and more safe, yet they are not adapted to their kind of work in regards to robustness and product interaction. Wearables especially designed for professional markets allow for more intuitive and discrete product interaction and if their added value is clear for the end-users a higher cost-price is acceptable. Therefore, wearables for professional markets are the right road for a wider market entry of wearables.

Second, we see that the technical challenges in wearables, such as robustness, washability, power management, sizing and scalability are similar for all current wearable integration techniques (woven, printed or laminated electronics. Cost- and time intensive R&D tracks with lots of testing is necessary to create reliable wearables. Intensive testing with many washing cycles is necessary in order to tackle these technical challenges. As wearable engineers, we need to step up the game and not settle for single-successes of washing a garment once and claiming the wearable is robust.

Despite technical challenges, the future for wearables is bright. Multidisciplinary Wearable Labs with prototyping facilities in electronics and PCB development, textile processing and electronics integration aid rapid development towards robust wearables that can be mass produced to meet market’s needs.

This article was written by Anneke van Abbema — Wearable Product Designer at Elitac, based in the Netherlands.

Elitac enables wearable innovation by continuously pushing technological boundaries in stretchable electronics. Elitac’s Wearable lab allows other partners to add intelligence to garments by rapidly develop their ideas into wearables that are robust and can be mass produced.

Haas, Ellen C., & Van Erp, Jan B. F. (2014) Multimodal warnings to enhance risk communication and safety, Safety Science (61), 29–35.

Jansen, C., Wennemers, A., Vos, W., & Groen, E. (2008). FlyTact: A Tactile Display Improves a Helicopter Pilot’s Landing Performance in Degraded Visual Environments. In M. Ferre (Ed.), EuroHaptics 2008 (pp. 867–875). Madrid, Spain: Springer-Verlag.

Wearable Product Designer at Ann.ID

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