Ask the average person what a wearable technology is and they’ll say a fitness tracker. They’ll describe it as a hard plastic bracelet, watch or clip-on gadget that logs things like heart rate and level of activity. While these early wearables have been hugely popular and a big leap forward, they have also had an extraordinarily high abandonment rate. Some 50 percent of users stop wearing them within six months.
For all that, wearable technology remains the manifest future of mobile connectivity. Far beyond tracking vitals, next-generation wearables promise to do virtually everything smartphones can do—navigation, communication, entertainment—and some things they can’t, such as close medical monitoring. And they’re already a booming business. Global market analysts Markets and Research projects the sector to grow from $22.7 billion today to $173 billion by 2020.
One of the leading developers of new wearables is Manufacture New York. Here, emerging designers share space and ideas with a world-class R&D electronics lab that is pushing experimentation in soft and “flexible” circuits and batteries that will one day completely disappear into clothing and drive products that integrate seamlessly with our lives as well.
Manufacture New York’s CTO, Amanda Parkes, says bringing fashion designers and technology experts under one roof is crucial for driving innovation forward. The reason early wearables have appealed mainly to gadget nerds and fitness aficionados, she says, is because they were developed “in the same ecosystem as a cellphone, as opposed to the ecosystem of a garment. We’re trying to expand the scope of what we’re thinking about.”
If making textiles that have processing and battery power sounds like a distant fantasy, consider the Google collaboration with Levi’s on Project Jacquard, which is developing touch-sensitive yarns that can communicate with mobile phones via gestures or touch. Ralph Lauren’s PoloTech™ shirt, a prototype that debuted at the 2014 U.S. Open, features a built-in fitness tracker that sends players’ performance data to their smartphones.
To achieve Parkes’ objective, the new wearables must be about more than fitting miniaturized digital components into clothing. They will have to retain the attributes of fabric. “We are building technologies that keep a piece of clothing a piece of clothing,” says fashion-tech entrepreneur Dr. Sabine Seymour, whose company sells licenses to clothing brands for her SoftSpot module, a wireless, sensor-based system for clothing that is washable and barely noticeable.
Parkes wants to take the technology a step further by creating resistors and capacitors in fiber form, so that rather than adding a separate component to clothing, digital capability would be sewn in. “There’s a lot of really high-level work going on in fiber science,” she says, “where you can start to think about literally weaving together a circuit board instead of printing it and attaching it to the garment.”
A world where clothing tracks your movements and collects an enormous amount of other sensor-driven data raises obvious privacy concerns, the full implications of which are yet to be addressed. But wearables represent an opportunity for more personal security as well. By using every person’s unique heartbeat as identification, for example, wearables could eliminate the danger of lost or stolen keys and credit cards. Startups such as ROAR and Cuff are designing wearable jewelry that will be able to send out alerts to friends and family in case of emergency.
The future of smart clothing
“Fashion is a language of emotion, personal expression and aesthetic, and there’s a whole other set of things that we could be building and designing for,” says Parkes. She imagines using LED technology to make clothes that are visually interactive—and fibers that change colors and patterns so that you can refresh your wardrobe without buying a new one.
Whatever direction the technology takes, the ambition for wearable fashion now is to make it, well, fashionable. That’s the reason Christina Mercando, when she set out to build Ringly—her wearable-jewelry company, decided to put ring design before technology. “It was obvious to me that I would have to make it something that I’d want to wear even if there was no technology inside,” she says.
Both beautiful and fashion forward, Mercando’s smart jewelry has a counterintuitive ambition: to give the wearer less information. She sees her rings as a way to declutter her customers’ lives by weaning them away from their digital devices in various ways, for example, by letting them limit the notifications that smartphones can send her rings to those sent by the babysitter or the boss.
“My whole mission is to let people use their phones less,” she says. “Eventually, we want to eliminate keys and metro cards and all these little things you have to worry about in your life.” Along with her colleagues in the smart-clothing business, Mercando is trying to build a world we can only imagine now, one in which connected clothing can actually help you disconnect, a place where you can feel confident leaving home with nothing but the clothes on your back.