Beyond the smartwatch: The future of smart clothing

Digital fashion can simply be about an easy way to carry your iPhone, but designers are pushing what can be achieved with more esoteric designs. The LED dress from Richard Nicoll is a good example of the experimentation that is going on. There are of course limitations, as the models could only wear the dress for 20 minutes before it became too hot. The work that Cutecircuit has been doing shows how high fashion is using technology.

Synapse dress

The Synapse Dress uses electronics and 3D printed components to alter its appearance as the mood of the wearer changes (Image: Jason Perry / Margo Mortitz)

Designers and technologists are also collaborating to push what is possible with technology and apparel today. The Synapse Dress is a good example. Using the Intel Edison microcontroller, Dutch high-tech fashion designer, Anouk Wipprecht, has created a dress that alters its appearance as the mood of the wearer also changes. And Intimacy 2.0 is a fabric that becomes more transparent the more intimate you become with another person.

To gain an insight into how digital fashion, printed and woven electronics are converging, TechRadar Pro spoke with Kathryn Wills, Smart Textiles Associate at the National Physical Laboratory and Coventry University. We began by posing this question: With the development of conductive fabrics and printed electronics, how do you think clothing for the digital age will evolve?

She replied: "The increasing interest in, and development of, conductive fabrics and printed electronics over the past few years has become clear through visiting wearable technology and smart fabrics shows and seeing what is coming to market.

"The sports and fitness sector is booming, with many examples of sportswear available which will measure your heart rate. This sector is likely to develop in the sense of being able to measure a wider range of physiological properties through your clothing, such as breathing rate and temperature. Garments for medical-level monitoring are not yet as widespread but as this evolves, it will potentially revolutionise health monitoring for patients and clinicians in terms of telehealth services."

Experiments with integrating technology into clothing have come and gone. Why did they fail to take off?

"Manufacturers need to understand exactly how their product will be used and what environment it will be subjected to, for example, if it's in contact with skin will there be irritation issues, or problems with temperature, sweat etc. We need to have a good idea of exactly what we want the product to do and for how long.

"Also I guess people can lose interest; new gadgets need to be able to retain consumer interest and become part of their routine. There is also the fact that integrating this intelligence into numerous garments or products is expensive."

How do you think the advent of 'digital fashion' such as the Synapse Dress will impact on the future development and design of 'gadget clothing'?

"Fashion pieces such as the Synapse Dress are great ways to showcase the merging of electronic engineering with fashion and they increase interest in and awareness of gadget clothing. Hopefully such demonstrations will also stimulate more collaboration between textile manufacturers and the electronics industries, since large-scale development of such projects is at present a hurdle for many people. Suitable apps also need to be developed alongside the gadget clothing to accompany and help interpret the data being acquired."

Ping garment

Ping from Electricfoxy is a garment that can update your Facebook status. A customisable app communicates with the garment to send social media messages

At the moment wearable means wristbands or watches. Is the future more integration of technology and apparel?

"From the shows we've attended the wristband and watch market is still dominating in the wearables sector; however there is a definite increase in interest in integrating technology and apparel. There tends to be more steps to go through when designing electronics into clothing, such as the connections, which are used on the textile, where does the battery go, how it is responding on the skin etc.

"A central hub such as a watch, which can be linked to the distributed electronics in the sensing clothing will need both energy and intelligence to function. There are also no standards for electronics and clothing technologies at present so it's tricky to benchmark how your garment should be behaving. Therefore the future will be focusing on these issues in order to facilitate better integration of technology and apparel."

And where do you think the next breakthrough in wearable technology will come from?

"The hardware market is becoming established whereas the smart apparel market has yet to take off. I think once the issues mentioned above have been overcome, there will be a lot of interest and uptake in wearable apparel products, with sports apparel leading the way.

"Reliability of the products needs to be demonstrated, in addition to a clear purpose for them. For example if you buy a fitness garment to monitor various physiological attributes during your exercise, what will you do with this data when you have it?"