The next wearable technology will be woven straight into the fabrics we wear.
Talk about a literal approach: the next piece of wearable technology may well be your jeans. The wheels are in motion already! Google calls it Project Jacquard, which enables textile manufacturers to incorporate a new kind of braided conductive thread into their fabrics. The possibilities are many: a coat can be used to access music on a smartphone; a set of curtains can have controls for the lights; a sofa arm rest can grant access to the TV.
Touchscreen-enabled gloves already use a version of this technology, but Project Jacquard, which is designed by Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects division, is a little different. The new thread comes in any colour and it can be used in existing industrial equipment. This has been a major obstacle to date, as the machinery has been too rough on the electronics. The resulting piece of fabric works by linking to a small Bluetooth controller, which runs on a watch battery. The controller is kept in a small pocket, enabling the wearer to use a patch on their trousers or jacket like a touchscreen.
“When we talk about interactive textiles, we need to think about it at the scale of clothes manufacturing, using existing supply chains and existing industrial weaving machines,” Ivan Poupyrev, head of Google’s textile project, said at Google I/O 2015. The first Project Jacquard collaboration is underway with Levi’s. The idea is to have a small patch of conductive material embedded in the jeans, explained Poupyrev, not to have it make up the entire garment.
Are smart fabrics the future?
It’s very early days for smart fabrics so it remains to be seen how useful this technology will be. It could end up as a curiosity, although projections from Gartner suggests otherwise, predicting that smart garments are set to beat all other types of wearable fitness-tracking gadgets in terms of growth. In fact, smart fabrics may well become the single largest category in 2016.
26 million smart garments are expected to ship in 2016, followed by 24 million sports watches and 19 million smart wristbands. Sports clothing will likely be the main market for smart fabrics, but there’s also significant potential for devices related to health. “We’ll see the target markets for these types of smart garments change from being mostly athletes and people doing sports to include people in their everyday lives and the clothing they wear,” said Gartner research director Angela McIntyre.
Smart clothes can monitor physical activity and sleep like a regular piece of wearable technology, but there are also possibilities to take this further to cover new areas, added McIntyre: “Particularly in big cities where pollution is an issue, you can have a monitor on your external clothing to let you know if you’re in an area where there might be chemicals in the air or heavy pollutants that are above a certain level.”.
Smart socks or slippers could be an idea for older people prone to slips and falls, sending a message for help should they become indisposed. A similar product is already produced by a company called Sensoria, whose fitness smart socks collect data about gait, cadence and pronation. Healthcare applications are more likely to become a major factor for smart fabrics from 2018, Gartner predicts, and this will likely mean lengthy regulatory approval processes for the devices in question.
There’s also the looming issue of privacy, as masses of personal data will be collected by these devices: “The companies producing the shirts and providing the online accounts for tracking that data will have access to it, and they will be able to sell or barter this information on to insurance companies or healthcare providers and marketers as well as employers,” said McIntyre. She urges people to be mindful over who gets access to their personal data, and choose companies who respect data privacy.
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