Beyond the Smartwatch: Why Smart Clothing is the Future of Wearables


2015 was the year of wearable technology; and in particular, the year of the smartwatch. Apple Watch was released in April 2015 and spurred competition from the likes of Fitbit, Pebble, Samsung, Sony and Tag Heuer. But smartwatches were just the first wave of wearable technology. Next up is smart clothing.

Before we go any further, let’s put wearable technology in context. Wearables are simply the latest stage in the evolution of personal computing. Here’s where I think we are in that evolution:

PC -> Mobile -> Wearables -> Implants -> Singularity?

First the PC brought computing power into your home (1970s ->), then smartphones made computing power mobile (2007 ->), then smartwatches brought computing power onto your body (2015 ->). The next stage will be when computing power goes into your body – possibly in the form of brain implants. That may sound Orwellian to you. But I would argue that Facebook is already tunnelling into our brains! As for the fifth stage, Singularity, I’ll leave that to the famous futurist Ray Kurzweil to define.

Fashion

So we’re effectively at the halfway point of the evolution of personal computing. But it’s early days for wearables. While nearly all of us have a PC and a smartphone by now, relatively few of us wear a smartwatch. In my view the main reason for that is that smartwatches have – so far – failed to become a fashion accessory. Even the Apple Watch looks too geeky (one has to wonder what Steve Jobs would’ve thought of the current iteration of Apple Watch; I suspect he would’ve sent it back to Jonny Ive’s drawing board several times!).

Smart clothing might be a different story though, because recognised fashion labels such as Ralph Lauren and Levi’s are involved in development. That’s going to be crucial if smart clothing is ever going to be adopted. Let’s take a look then at the state of the smart clothing market.

Smart Jeans

One of the most promising developments is Google’s Project Jacquard, which aims to integrate computing power into textiles. The project has already created a “conductive yarn,” which will give your clothing touch and gesture interactivity. It looks and feels like normal yarn, so it can be used in everyday clothing. Here’s one possible application for this, which I thought of as I write this on a hot summer’s day here in New Zealand: imagine tapping your fingers on your shirt pocket, in order to turn down the temperature of your Nest Thermostat.

The first partner of Project Jacquard is Levi’s, the venerable maker of blue jeans. We don’t yet know whether Levi’s is making a pair of ‘smart jeans’; and if so, what kind of functionality will be in them. Perhaps a pair of jeans that sounds an alarm if you put on a shirt that doesn’t match? 🙂 We’ll find out in “spring 2016” (March to June).

Smart sportswear

Despite the best efforts of Google and Levi’s to bring smart clothing to the masses, most other smart clothing in 2016 is targeted at the fitness market. AthosHexoskin and Sensoria are active in this space. OMSignal is another and its latest product, due out in spring, is a “smart bra.” The OM bra will offer “real-time biometrics” (such as heart rate) and is being targeted at female athletes and fitness fanatics.

Even Ralph Lauren hasn’t been able to look beyond sportswear in its early smart clothing developments. Last year Ralph Lauren released the PoloTech Shirt for men, a US$295 shirt that measures “heart rate and breathing depth and balance, as well as other key metrics.” So it’s not the type of shirt you’d buy for lounging around at home. Also it’s very, er, figure hugging – suitable for professional rugby players, but not the rest of us mere mortals.

What about non-fitness use cases?

My biggest concern with the smart clothing market is the lack of innovation outside of the sportswear department. Frankly this has been a problem with smartwatches too: an over-reliance on fitness features, like step counting and measuring heart rate. Where there have been attempts at other use cases – for instance notifications in Apple Watch – they are not very compelling. Who wants to get notifications of texts or Twitter messages via their watch? Turns out not many of us.

One small ray of light is e-ink bracelets. Looksee Labs has created a bracelet called the Eyecatcher, which may point the way to better use cases for smart clothing. The bracelet offers customisable images and it can display notifications from your smartphone. Sample uses include the display of “clock faces, maps, notifications, qr codes, activity, boarding passes and more.” Of course, if you have a smartwatch then you’d prefer to have all that functionality on there instead. Which is why I’m not bullish on smart bracelets.

Smart jewelry, like that offered by WiseWear and Ringly, potentially offers more of a fashion statement than a bracelet or watch. But again, the smart jewelry I’ve seen doesn’t do anything more than what a good smartwatch already does.

Conclusion

Ordinarily I like to give my readers compelling reasons to test out (or at least be aware of) the technologies I present. With DIY security and virtual reality, the topics of the previous two posts, I think I did that. But with smart clothing, unless you’re a fitness junky then you’re poorly served by the market at this time. So I find myself not recommending you try the current crop of smart clothing products – they just aren’t very useful to anyone not wearing gym pants.

I am cautiously optimistic about Google’s Project Jacquard, with the major caveat that we have yet to see what Levi’s makes with it. Even for that project though, the challenge is to come up with functionality beyond activity tracking and notifications. Wearable technology simply has to go beyond step counting if it’s to become widely used.