Smart clothing has generally been the domain of fitness enthusiasts and professional athletes. Smart shirts, smart socks, smart shorts, smart bras, and smart shoes all provide the ability to track and measure specific biological or physiological metrics. There is an appetite in the sports and fitness market to use wearable technology to understand how your body works, use the data-driven insights to drive better performance, or to simply increase the motivation to lead a healthy and active lifestyle. With the market activity converging around specific use cases like this, the future of smart clothing beyond sports and fitness is harder to gauge. Most companies in the smart clothing space seem to be going after the low-hanging fruit, and are hesitating to experiment or venture into other markets like consumer, healthcare, or even enterprise. Nevertheless, there are many emerging opportunities for smart clothing outside of sports and fitness, and the consumer fashion market is possibly one of the biggest and most exciting opportunities.
Smart clothing for consumers is beginning to be used in high fashion, with companies like CuteCircuit creating interactive haute couture and ready-to-wear collections, blending technology and fashion clothing. Some of the company’s popular dresses include the Hug Shirt, Galaxy Dress, and Twitter Dress. CuteCircuit has recently launched a range of LED-infused accessories, shoes, jackets, miniskirts, and accessories that can be controlled with an iPhone app. The clothes include dynamic LED displays that can be changed on the app. The iPhone mini-dress, however, costs £3,750 ($5,400) – hardly aimed at the high-street fashion market.
On the other hand, Google and Levi’s have revealed that they are working on releasing a ready-to-wear collection of jeans that would feature smart clothing technology. This is part of Google’s Project Jacquard, which is researching the use of conductive yarns to create interactive textiles that could one day interact with smartphones or other devices around us. Combining the use of miniature electronics, sensors, and conductive yarns that form circuitry, everyday Levi’s jeans can become an interface to control music on your smartphone and take or reject a call on your phone. Project Jacquard is not just pushing the boundaries of user interaction, but is also engaging traditional textile designers and manufacturing companies to integrate these smart textiles into their existing manufacturing and design processes.
Bridging the gap between technology providers and traditional textile manufacturers is key to realizing a smart clothing market that scales with consumer fashion. Jabil’s acquisition of Clothing+ should also help accelerate and scale up the manufacturing process for smart clothing, at the same time marrying textile expertise with electronics manufacturing expertise.
Today’s consumer fashion is led by high-street fashion brands such as H&M, Zara, Gap, Levi’s, Banana Republic, etc. For smart clothing to have an impact on consumer fashion, these brands will need to embrace smart clothing technology, just as sports apparel brands like Under Armour are starting to roll out smart clothing.
The use cases for consumer fashion can include:
- User controls for smartphone, smart home, or other devices
- User notifications like receiving a text, phone call, or message
- Basic tracking of biometrics like activity, heart rate, etc.
- Dynamic clothing that changes color, shape, or text based on user preferences
- Weather-controlled clothing that changes based on temperature or rain
Smart clothing needs an Apple or a GoPro that can make it cool and desirable, but at the same time affordable and not something that is limited to the high end of the market. This would involve popular high-street clothing brands like Levi’s, Gap, Zara, H&M, or the like starting to introduce a smart clothing line with a smartphone or connected element. Only fashion brands with that level of brand and scale can handle the manufacturing challenges, but at the same time create awareness among general consumers. Clothing brands that are willing to experiment and think out of the box will benefit in this marketplace, and will succeed in pushing the boundaries. Street fashion is a highly dynamic and creative market, and by blending technology into our daily lives rather than the other way around, we will hopefully get closer to that vision of ubiquitous computing.