Fashion Sense & Sensors: Connecting Clothes to the Internet of Things
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One of the most interesting consumer tech developments of the last decade was the advent of wearables. Ten years ago, the idea of a watch that connected to the internet, facilitated communication, and monitored your health might have sounded like a James Bond tool; now, these watches are commonplace, and are at the center of an expanding collection of wearable tech accessories. It’s actually somewhat remarkable how quickly we all got used to the idea, and that’s a good thing — because smart clothing might be next. What this means is that in the near future, you might not have to put on an Apple Watch to take advantage of an intelligent wearable device. Instead, the very clothes you’re wearing are likely to be imbued with smart technology that enables them to connect to the greater Internet of Things.
The idea of functioning technology within ordinary clothing seems almost impossible — at least without that clothing becoming hard or bulky. However, there are some relatively recent tech developments that are helping to make tech-infused clothing more wearable. The most important example is arguably the improvement of softer and more flexible printed circuit boards. Most modern tech requires PCBs or similar circuit boards in order to function, but naturally a firm or rigid chip could be a hindrance to comfortable clothing. Alternatively, less rigid options can be ideal, and it just so happens that designs for flex PCBs have come a long way. With common devices shrinking and new inventions like smart clothing bringing about new demands, these flex PCBs have gotten more compact and more versatile. They can be fitted into clothing, in some cases, with minimal disruption, and enable a range of electric functions to run.
As with ordinary wearable devices, many of the most exciting implications of functional smart clothing concern health. We wrote about this in our article "Smarty Pants" and made note of examples ranging from armbands to belts — all of which can be infused with technology as a means to keep wearers healthier, or more focused on fitness goals. Specific functions vary. For example, the belt we made note of was developed by Samsung with the capability to let people know if they might have put on some weight; meanwhile, special booties have been made to monitor the vital signs of newborn babies while they sleep. In all health-related examples though, the basic capability is the same: This clothing is connected to the IoT such that it can communicate data. A person wearing smart clothing is monitored for a given purpose, and the relevant information is passed along wirelessly to a phone or computer program, or possibly directly to a doctor.
Health and fitness monitoring are going to be the primary drivers of smart clothing. It may well be that another five or ten years from now even the average shirt or pair of pants does some basic health tracking. However, the digitization of the fashion industry has additional implications and potential applications as well. One example is the potential of relatively ordinary clothing being used to enhance the muscle activity of elderly or handicapped individuals; it would work almost like a science-fiction exoskeleton, minus the bulky material. Another example is the use of clothing to identify and communicate — say, such that a fan’s jersey could serve as a scanned “ticket” for a sporting event. We might see clothes that automatically heat or cool people according to conditions, outfits that emit light to make people more visible on walks in the dark, garments equipped with tracking technology for young children, and so on. And beyond these examples, there are undoubtedly more coming that we have yet to envision or imagine at this stage. We look forward to seeing how smart clothing is going to enhance our lives and change our industry; connecting our clothes to the IoT is going to lead to all kinds of fascinating functions. Before too long, these developments may totally change how we think about what we wear and how we design our product.
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