From Gadgets to Garments

What’s Next for Wearables: A Wardrobe of Smart Products

The Aftershokz Trekz Air is no ordinary headphone. It uses bone conduction technology, a natural part of the hearing process, allowing sound to travel through the eardrums and bones simultaneously. It is also super-light and designed for a secure fit.

The latest innovations in wearable technology are taking the category to a whole new level, with products designed to enhance everyday experiences from sport to sleep and from wellness to workout.

Fitness trackers and exercise-specific devices have laid a solid foundation for wearable tech and, indeed, there is much innovation taking place in this area. Beyond the gadgets, these days excitement is growing about the role softgoods will play in the evolution of wearables. As the relationship between the apparel industry and the world electronics advances, many believe that in the near future our wardrobes will be filled with wearable tech items that will do the “talking,” connecting users to all aspects of an active lifestyle.

In fact, this is already happening: A new Levi’s jean jacket comes equipped with ride share apps so with a simple tap on the sleeve an Uber is on its way; the SUPA-Powered Smarter Sports Bra has integrated sensors that monitor motion and temperature; yoga enthusiasts can buy leggings from Wearable X that have technology woven into the garment to provide gentle vibrations at the hips, knees and ankles, encouraging proper positioning during practice; and incoming college freshman are sampling smart backpacks coded so students can share likes on music, culture or a favorite cause.

A training shirt from the Finnish wearable tech brand Polar, the Team Pro Shirt, integrates heart rate monitoring directly onto the fabric and provides GPS technology via a corresponding sensor to track metrics.

Under Armour’s Hovr Sonic Connected is one of UA’s smart shoes. UA’s Record Sensor technology tracks, analyzes and stores running metrics such as pace, cadence, stride length and distance and connects seamlessly with the free MapMyRun app. The sensor is secured in watertight casing in the shoe’s midsole so it won’t get wet or damaged.

Even non-waking hours are being affected by wearable innovation. Under Armour’s Smart Sleepwear features an infrared pattern inside the clothing that helps reduce inflammation and speeds muscle recovery from workouts. In footwear, Under Armour offers “connected” versions of its Hovr running shoes, with a tracking sensor secured in the midsole of the footwear.

Key to these game-changing softgoods is a new generation of smart fabrics. Considering that 96 percent of the human experience is in direct contact with a textile, the potential for growth of smart garments is big. According to market research firm Tractica, smart clothing and body sensors will grow to become a market worth $19B by 2020.

“We are bullish on wearables and see tremendous opportunities and lots of area of specialization,” says Stacey Burr, founder of Future Standard, an alumnus of Digital Wear at DuPont and Textronics, Adidas. “There have been lots of changes over the years, but we now have a backbone and infrastructure in place.”

Intel exec Todd Harple adds, “It is a natural extension of technologists to look at textiles and a natural extension of apparel makers to recognize the arc of tech.”

Garmin’s fenix 5 Plus takes the brand’s popular GPS watch to the next level with the addition of built-in routable topographical maps, storage for music playlists, Garmin Pay contactless payment solution and wrist-based Pulse Oximeter  for altitude acclimation awareness. The fēnix 5 Plus model also offers advanced training features — users can tap into physiological metrics, running dynamics and more to track workout stats, measure progress and fine-tune form.

Dan Leger, founder of Path Collaborative, recalls the first wearable products he worked on 20-plus years ago when a battery pack weighed close to 10 pounds. “What we were working on then are Apple watches and iPhones of today.”

These execs were among dozens of wearable tech experts who spoke at the recent WEAR Conference in New York City, a two-day affair focused on the opportunities and challenges in this burgeoning category. The event garnered wide appeal; individuals attending hailed from Nike, Ralph Lauren, Hanesbrands, Target and Patagonia, along with professionals from several research universities, an array of tech start-ups and established players from Google and Intel. Many in the audience were first timers to a WEAR conference.  

Polar’s Team Pro Shirt is used by more than 200 NCAA and pro sports teams in their training. The shirt integrates heart rate monitoring directly onto the fabric and provides GPS technology via a corresponding sensor. The metrics gathered offer insight into an athlete’s effort, speed and recovery throughout the season.

A major takeaway from market buzz is that the direction in wearables going forward is product that syncs with every element of modern life.

A prime example is Project Jacquard, the breakout collaboration between Levi’s and Google that produced the touch sensitive Levi’s Commuter Trucker Jacket. Launched last year, the companies just announced the product’s first update: Ride share apps incorporated in the denim jacket along with the ability for wearers to connect with their smart wireless Bose headphones.

“This wasn’t about just a jacket; it was creating a platform,” said Ivan Poupyrex, director of engineering at Google, who emphasized that it is critical to integrate the tech into products as early as possible in the development, and to establish a supply chain model that is scale-able.

Challenges & Opportunities Ahead

While the wearables scene is attracting plenty of positive energy, a critical issue remains — how to streamline the interplay of two distinct supply chains. The heart of the matter is the cut and sew world of textiles requires about 24 months for product to come to market, whereas the development cycle for electronics is half that. Challenges also facing product development of wearable tech softgoods revolve around wash cycles, battery life and location of electronics. Often reality is significantly more complex than developers imagine, those on the front lines of innovation report.

Fitbit’s new Ace activity tracker is the brand’s first wearable designed specifically for kids. Aimed at kids ages eight and older, Ace automatically tracks steps, active minutes and sleep, has up to five days of battery life, features an adjustable, showerproof wristband in two bright colors and provides “encouragement” to be active. In addition to tracking activity, the Ace reminds kids to move, rewards them for moving with badges and messages and motivates them with challenges.

What makes smart clothing different from conventional apparel is integrated technology – such as sensors -- embedded into the fabric to “read” your body. New sensors are thinner, more flexible and more sophisticated and work to allow wearers of smart clothes to connect to technology from head to toe. A stumbling block to make this possible is how to properly insulate textile cables so they don’t get wet from sweat that would prevent conducting data precisely for high-speed sensors. Also top of mind is the need for motion sensors to be placed in specific areas to work efficiently without sacrificing style and comfort concerns, not to mention creation of accurate shipping instructions for battery-embedded garments.

One company forging ahead with high-tech smart apparel is Myant, a Toronto-based technology incubator. Exhibiting at the TechTextil trade fair earlier this Spring, Myant collaborated with knitting machine maker Stoll to create a Digital Textile Factory that enables all levels of industry players access to a virtual platform for ideation, R&D, design and scalable manufacturing of textile computing products. Myant associates at the Atlanta fair wore new SKIIN bio-sensing underwear that discreetly monitored individuals’ health throughout the day, signaling moments of stress and activity levels in real time. Charts “reading” SKIIN garments were displayed in the trade show booth.

Another noteworthy development hitting the market is a new JanSport collegiate backpack. The specially-designed day pack, created by the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) organization, is being sampled by first-year students at universities, including M.I.T.

The Aftershokz Trekz Air is no ordinary headphone. Utilizing bone conduction technology, a natural part of the hearing process, sound travels through the eardrums and bones simultaneously. The brand’s proprietary audio technologies and design patents enable the product to deliver both situational awareness and comfort. Durably designed to withstand high-impact activities, the Trekz Air is super-light and designed for a secure fit.

A unique code is woven into the fabric material of the backpack. But unlike a QR code, this fabric-based coding system is subtle to the eye yet recognizable by an app called AFFOA LOOKS. The owner can link his or her backpack to their mobile device and program it to display a song, a cause, or anything the owner chooses to share. Anyone with the app can scan or “look” the bag and receive this information.

To encourage more growth in the field of smart technology, leaders believe that an idea alone is not enough, and the material alone is not enough and it’s not enough just to have a process. But these three things together can create product that transforms our lifestyle.  And with today’s consumers increasingly on the lookout for products that enhance everyday experiences, wearable tech delivers hands down.