Connected clothing has been heralded by many as the next big thing, a truly innovative and transformative technology that will change our lives. While these kinds of extreme pronouncements are fairly popular these days, the reality frequently falls short.
So. Connected clothing. What’s the deal?
The Promise: Connected clothing is the next step towards integrating technology in our daily lives. As it grows ever more common, we’ll be able to pay for groceries with a hand wave, answer texts by typing on our sleeves, and charge our phones with solar panels built into our shirts. Using biometric readings drawn from our shirts, the doors of our homes will open as we approach and the thermostat will automatically adjust to suit our body’s temperature.
Jackets will use hydraulics to boost our strength. Jeans will change color at the touch of a button. Underwear will detect heart attacks and breathing trouble, automatically calling paramedics to the scene.
The Reality: Honestly? We’re getting there faster than you might think.
At the moment, the connected/smart clothing industry is largely dominated by fitness products; smart bras that measure your heart rate and breathing, belts that track your expanding waistline (as well as your step count), and even a shirt that gives you GPS directions via vibrating sections built into each shoulder.
Sygnal Fitness T-Shirt
A number of health-focused products have also entered the scene. Baby clothing company Owlet, for example, allows worried parents to “track [a] baby’s heart rate & oxygen” through a “Smart Sock” connected to an app on the parent’s device. For those worried about skin-cancer, French company Spinali Design offers a bikini with an integrated temperature sensor, alerting the wearer to reapply sunscreen after too much time in direct sunlight.
In the background, however, companies like Google and EVRYTHNG are building the functionality that is already enabling the next wave of innovation in the connected, smart clothing space.
Earlier this year, Google announced Jacquard, a set of miniature sensors and transmitters that make “it possible to weave touch and gesture interactivity into any textile using standard, industrial looms.” Partnering with Levi, Google’s engineers have created the “Commuter™ Trucker Jacket,” which allows the wearer to answer phone calls, change music stations, and get directions through a small sensor on the jacket’s wrist.
Levi’s Commuter Jacquard by Google Trucker jacket
However, the jacket itself is something of a sideshow; it’s Jacquard that’s truly significant. Following in the footsteps of the Android operating system, Google seems to once more be positioning itself as a platform producer – Jacquard is the foundation upon which others can build. Jacquard has the potential to open up the connected clothing space to greater innovation, lowering the barrier to entry for developers to encourage experimentation.
It’s a bit less visually impressive, but EVRYTHNG’s collaboration with branding company Avery Dennison is no less important. Announced in early 2016, the two companies have begun to attach “unique digital identities and data profiles” to every single article of clothing produced by what EVRYTHNG’s blog describes as “some of the world’s largest fashion and performance brands.”
Essentially, Avery Dennison produces RFID tags, QR codes, and NFC transmitters that are then attached to individual products. Each of these identifiers is then tied into EVRYTHNG’s data-management ecosystem.
On a company level, this allows brands to track the movement of clothing through their stores and distribution networks; it’s harder for a few items to ‘fall off the truck’ when said items are unique. In other words, it’s no longer a case of taking a t-shirt. It’s a case of taking this t-shirt.
Similarly, this tech could make counterfeiting luxury brands almost impossible. When one item has an RFID and the other doesn’t, it’s pretty clear which is genuine.
On the consumer side of things, this kind of tagging allows for easier access to information about a specific item. Tap the tag with your phone, and you’ve got the manufacturer’s location, the laundry requirements, and the exact materials used to make your new shirt. It might not be as visible as vibrating shoulder pads, but it’s exactly the kind of everyday, useful info that people might actually use on a regular basis.
EVRYTHING’s press release also notes that scanning a tag could allow consumers to “unlock personalized digital content, services, offers, and extras, or link to third-party apps for other rewards and benefits.” In other words, you might get recommendations for popular clothing pairings based off of your new shoes.
Much like Jacquard, EVRYTHING and Avery Dennison’s tech opens up a whole new set of possibilities for consumers and businesses.They also bring up a whole new set of worries regarding privacy, as these RFID tags can easily be used to track the movements of consumers inside stores, and potentially in the world beyond.