How IoT Underwear and Design Thinking Helped Billie Whitehouse Create Pose-Perfecting Yoga Pants
Her approach to technology-enabled clothing design revolves around good questions and constant iteration.
Billie Whitehouse is no stranger to success — or self-criticism. The designer, co-founder, and CEO of tech-enabled clothing company Wearable X has won a Cannes Lion award, partnered with major clients like Fox Sports, and shipped thousands of products around the world. But she says that she’s never been completely happy with any of her wearable tech creations — until now.
Her recently launched Nadi X yoga pants are a helpful haptic garment, meaning they provide feedback you can feel. As users follow along with an instructional app of 30 yoga poses, accelerometers woven into the pants can sense the wearer’s ankle, knee, and hip positioning. Motorized panels vibrate to bring attention to these areas when they’re not in proper alignment for a particular pose. After years of testing and developing the product, Whitehouse says, “we’re very proud that it is at its peak.”
She got to this point through a seemingly circuitous career path that includes sex toy design and professional sports projects, but she says that every step along the way has informed her development of this product.
Her first wearable IoT product, Fundawear, was a set of internet-connected vibrating underwear designed for long-distance couples. She didn’t have a deep hardware background when she started building the product, but she figured out how to create a prototype through YouTube video tutorials, trial-and-error experiments, and personal connections that she made in the Hardware Club maker community.
From there, she started tinkering with different applications for wearable haptics. She partnered with Fox Sports to launch Australian football fan jerseys that recreated the sensation of game collisions in real time. Whitehouse shipped over 4,500 units and “figured out a few things about larger-scale production” — like the importance of picking up the phone as soon as something goes wrong, and the value of keeping prototypes in all of her manufacturing facilities for on-the-fly testing. She then iterated on that product concept, this time with Bud Light, to make an American football fan jersey for Super Bowl L.
Through these projects, Whitehouse says, she learned how to build relationships with firmware and hardware partners, manage teams across multiple continents, make fast adjustments on the factory floor, and set realistic expectations for timelines (“triple it” is her rule of thumb).
With that experience in hand, Whitehouse wanted to try building a product of her own, independent of commercial clients. She landed on yoga clothes as a category that could benefit from haptic technology. “Haptics is a transference of touch onto the body,” says Whitehouse. “It allows you to feel like you would in a yoga class, where the teacher guides the position of your body with touch.” Plus, she felt encouraged by recent research on the increasing amount of time and money people around the world are spending on wellness activities and the success of convenience-focused wellness products like Peloton’s at-home spin classes and the Headspace meditation app. A yoga class you could squeeze into a full schedule or pack into a suitcase sounded appealing.
So in 2016, Whitehouse started applying her broad experience to creating the Nadi X yoga pants. Many skills from her previous projects were transferable, she says: for instance, she already knew how to build simple prototypes — “they looked like a pair of Frankenstein pants with electronics shoved in” — survey users, weave in electronic components, optimize the garment’s “vibrational language,” and plan for efficient manufacturing. But Whitehouse feels that the most important, most foundational skill she’s developed is her ability to understand and empathize with users’ needs.
“It’s just about asking the right questions and finding out how people would experience something in a totally new environment. When a technology is so new, you have to be able to do that.”
Working with new technology forces Whitehouse to design in a hands-on way, but it’s also a mindset she developed at a young age. Her childhood years were spent at her mother’s design school, the Whitehouse Institute of Design. Leanne Whitehouse founded the school as a recently-divorced young mother with $1,000 to her name. Now, the school has campuses in Sydney and Melbourne, hosts Australia’s version of Project Runway, and attracts teachers from companies like Louis Vuitton, Burberry, and Comme des Garçons.
“I grew up in this phenomenal educational environment where we were pushing the limits of what was possible every day — in terms of female entrepreneurship in the ’80s and in terms of teaching design in a way that was very physical and hands-on,” Whitehouse says of her mother’s school. It was there that she observed that when it comes to design, “there’s no ivory tower where you can sit and pontificate.”
“You build, you learn, you repeat it, you build again. You test, you iterate, you keep going. It’s forever a process.”
It’s a mindset that strips away some of the fear of failure, too: instead of getting hung up on a setback, she simply tries again. “It’s very easy to think things won’t come through when they break down at first, or when someone tells you it’s not possible to build,” says Whitehouse. “It’s very easy to give up. What’s not easy is to just breathe and to keep building and to try again a different way.”