Wearable technology has been growing in popularity for the last two decades and most people are completely at ease with the trend of using a FitBit or Apple watch, or similar device or app, to log life by tracking steps, calories, heart rate, sleep and even emotions.
The phenomena of ‘life logging’ is sometimes referred to as the quantified self and the results in what author Tim Ferris calls ‘self knowledge through numbers.’ As we gather data about ourselves, we can improve physical, mental, emotional and life performance.
Self-quantifying in the form of wearables has an expected value of £40bn by 2022. According to Modor Intelligence, “The market is segmented by Product (Smartwatch, Head-mounted Display, Smart Clothing, Ear Worn, Fitness Tracker, Body Worn Camera, Exoskeleton, Medical Devices) and geography”. And digital big wigs are in on the act, including the smart clothing sector. Google’s Project Jacquard has the strapline, “a liberating take on wearables”, and they produce a smart clothing line, including a Levis Jacket and San Laurent bag. “At Jacquard by Google, we are pioneering a world in which everyday things become gateways for digital experiences,” says Google. “The possibilities are endless.”
The question is, are the possibilities endless – or is smart clothing just a gimmick? If you can monitor and gather the same data on your smart watch, which you can wear 24/7, why would you want to invest in clothing which has a shorter shelf life, that will get worn out or go out of fashion?
“There will always be those who are enthusiastic about tech who will want to buy smart clothes even if your watch has the same functionality,” says Ian Russell Chief Commercial Officer at Pireta, a company who provide body-worn sensors to enable performance monitoring. In technical terms Pireta are a ‘middle-man’, connecting and communicating the data from the garment to another part of the garment, or onto a smart phone or watch. They do this by embedding the electronics into smart garments via a very thin metallic layer to be deposited on to the textile in a pattern, down at the fibral level of the textile. Sensors are added to monitor signals from the heart, muscles, temperature or movement.
“There is an element of novelty and gimmickry with some smart clothing,” says Russell. “But garments can also play an important role and can gather more useful data than a watch.” There are three areas where, according to Russell, clothing works better than a watch, and it’s usually because it can get close to the skin: muscle activity where sensors map and track muscles; motion tracking used to help monitor how the body moves, for example when swinging a golf club; and heat control/ measuring core body temperature.
Smart clothing is spread across a number of markets particularly health and fitness, but the real growth area is healthcare. As Russell points out, smart clothes can be used to monitor the movements and walking of someone with dementia, who may be wandering at night (check out the Japanese company Xenoma’s pyjamas designed with this in mind), or to identify muscle movement in children with asthma, helping to predict when an attack may happen. Smart clothing in sport is useful for detailed feedback, as mentioned above, to monitor movement, heat, and muscle activity and is increasingly being added to the armoury of tech tools used by elite coaches to boost performance in sport.