Wearable technology is quickly becoming the next big thing in consumer electronics but even as form factors and features improve, the devices are still mostly things you strap on or that otherwise require carrying around.
A new slew of technologies based around smart fabrics promises to change this, by integrating technology into our very clothes. How might this work, and what applications can we expect to see in the near future? Moreover, what technologies are already out there? And what do you need to know about this movement as a designer or a maker?
How it Works
The specifics of the technologies involved varies from project to project and company to company. Anything could be considered a smart fabric: a normal article of clothing that offers advanced features could be considered utilizing a smart fabric. Usually, this is accomplished by weaving something other than cotton into the material.
A basic example of this like the TouchMan Gloves from AiQ Smart Clothing Inc., which contains a stretchable stainless steel fiber that is conductive to work with capacitive touchscreens. More advanced options range from heated clothing to fitness tracking. Sensilk, for instance, is a company that’s focused on building heart rate monitors into our shirts, which removes the need for cumbersome strap-on devices. Meanwhile, a team at the Institute of Textiles and Clothing in Hong Kong are working on building fabric circuit boards into our clothes that can survive multiple machine washes.
These technologies are really nothing new, though the revolution has been something of a quiet one so far. Radiate Athletics for instance ran a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2013 to release a t-shirt that could show you which muscles you were working in the gym by changing color accordingly like a heat map. Capacitive gloves have likewise been around for a long time now.
There is even a Smart Fabrics Conference which is already in its 11th iteration and has always celebrated the interaction of technology and fashion, focusing on this most extreme form of symbiosis. International leaders like Dragon Innovation, frog design, iShüu Technologies, Intel and Hanky Pancreas have shared their expertise with attendees to bridge the gap between smart fabrics and wearable technology disciplines in the conference held in May, 2015.
The future is exciting for this kind of technology, with the concept gaining a lot more interest and attention as time goes on. The newly released Project Jacquard is one particularly bright beacon in this arena that will make it possible for countless designers to incorporate touch and gesture interactivity into textiles. The project comes from Google and relies on conductive yarns in combination with embedded electronics.
From a design perspective, this opens up countless opportunities: from creating items of clothes that could allow faster and more accurate interaction with mobile devices, to designing entirely new products that provide standalone interactive features.
What’s more, it finally offers a way for us to integrate the technology seamlessly into our lives. Unlike wearable technology, smart fabrics remain completely invisible until the need arises. And it needn’t be limited to our clothing either: there’s nothing to stop smart fabrics from being used in furniture, upholstery, pillow cases or plush toys either. Imagine a teddy bear that could read a child’s vitals, or a sofa with a TV remote built right into the arm…
Advantages and Possibilities
The question that designers need to be asking themselves now, is what they could accomplish with smart fabrics. This is a truly emerging niche with a world of opportunities – no doubt the companies to come up with applications for smart fabric technology will have huge success on their hands.
And there’s plenty of possibilities here. Whether smart fabrics are best used to enhance fashion and style choices for consumers, or to give new functionality to a multitude of objects that may include cars, furniture, geotextiles, kites, and other goods; they have a significant advantage of offering a large surface area to work with while at the same time being discrete, seamless, convenient and potentially great to look at.