The Internet of Slacks? IoT and Smart Clothing

When you think of wearable technology you probably think about those fitness trackers that you wear on your wrist.  What you probably don’t think about is your shirt, your pants or even your socks.

Wearables are about to take on a whole new meaning as technology meets fashion to deliver smart clothing.

The idea of clothing with sensors isn’t brand new, but until now, it’s been manufactured in small batches for very niche purposes – like professional sports.

Professional Performance

The German men's national soccer team wears smart performance jerseys by Adidas.  The shirts track all sorts of data during the team’s games and workouts.  Coaches use metrics like speed, heart rate and distance to craft future training plans and develop game strategy.  There must be something to it, because the team won the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

Closer to home, several NBA teams are using jerseys embedded with a technology called OptimEye for early injury detection and faster recovery.  The tiny device is woven into the players' jerseys in the area between the shoulder blades.  It’s able to detect speed, heart rate, jump height and other data.  Coaches and training staff then review the data for patterns or anomalies that indicate a player is slowing down or changing form while performing – which can be an indicator of a costly injury.

Expansion to the Everyday Active Lifestyle

As the fitness tracker industry expands and the IoT technology gets smaller and less expensive, the idea of smart fitness clothing for the average consumer is taking hold.  Ralph Lauren sells a PoloTech workout shirt that will stream your data to an iPhone or Apple Watch.  A company called Sensoria even sells smart socks for runners that detect stride and provide data on heel strike, pronation and will tell you when it’s time to replace your shoes.

Beyond Fitness

Current smart clothing focuses on placing sensors into items of clothing, but the future of this market segment lies in taking a step back in the manufacturing process.  Enter, e-textiles. E-textiles are the next big thing in IoT.  This is the concept of weaving smart fabric that looks and feels like the fabric we wear every day – not just to the gym, but to work and out on the town.

Ohio State University has been leading the charge on this initiative and has successfully created fabrics that contain antennas that act as sensors for smart devices.  So, instead of finding a way to imbedded sensors in a piece of already manufactured clothing, the scientists at OSU are actually weaving the sensors into fabric that can then be used in any clothing.  That means your jeans, suit jacket and t-shirt will all be able to collect, store and send information.

But Why?

E-textiles sound cool, right?  But what’s their function?  Here are just a few real-world possibilities:

  • Misplaced your jacket? Track it.
  • Need to charge your phone? Put it in your pocket and your pants act as a charger.
  • Worried about the authenticity of your brand name clothing? Scan it.  Barcodes woven right into the fabric prevent fraud for high-end clothing.
  • Beyond simple fashion, hospitals could use gowns made from smart fabric to wirelessly monitor vitals.
  • Soldiers and first responders wearing uniforms made from smart fabrics could be monitored for health and safety.

Sensors AND Hardware

Our discussion so far has centered on smart fabric as a sensor.  A new Google initiative called Project Jacquard is taking the concept a step further by creating smart fabric that is sensitive to touch, just like your smart device.  The same fibers that are combined to make the touch screen on your iPhone can be woven with traditional fabrics to create wearable hardware.  This means you can change the volume of your headphones by tapping your sleeve.  Or answer a call by flipping your wrist in a certain manner.

Although the concept is in its infancy and not all futuristic Google endeavors reach critical mass (Google Glass, anyone?), the project does bring together Google scientists and some renowned fashion designers, so it's worth watching.

The Next Big Market Move For IoT

In 2015, the e-textiles market was reported to be worth $100 million. But as demand for accessible wearable technology grows and mass adoption lowers price points, the market is estimated to grow to $3 billion in the next 10 years.  Just another example of the proliferation of IoT and intelligent systems at play in our lives.

Written By: Gina Haraway

Gina Haraway is Avnet Embedded's Director of Supplier Business Development, Microsoft Global. With over 20 years of experience in the technology industry and 6 years at Avnet, Gina has held several positions and has extensive knowledge and experience in inside & field sales, account development and supplier business development.

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