Tech Tonic with Vishal Mathur: Smart fabrics are evolving fast

A shirt that lets you control your phone with simple taps of the cuff; apparel that lets people with hearing disabilities feel vibrations from music; beachwear that will remind you to re-apply sunscreen — wearable technology is evolving fast.

In a sense, wearable tech can be traced back to the first wristwatches, the Walkman music players of the 1980s, and those clunky also-’80s shoes with embedded microchips to tracked movement.

Unlike those wearables, today’s smart apparel cannot be told apart from its non-smart counterparts. Fabrics and embeds within fabrics can do all the computing without one needing to wear a computer.

Smart fabrics are defined as apparel that allows “both the integration of electronic logic and the use of advanced materials with novel mechanical, chemical and electrical properties”, according to a definition provided by a Smart Fabrics whitepaper released in 2018 by research firm Atos.

Decoded, this means sensors and controls, new conductive fabrics, or a combination of the two.

Non-wired (or passive) smart fabrics, for instance, can register changes in temperature and humidity and work to passively maintain body temperature and moisture or protect against ultraviolet radiation. Nike has developed what it calls AeroAdapt sportswear with moisture-reactive yarns that change shape to release body heat when perspiration is detected. This yarn, originally woven in straight lines, contracts and crinkles when it comes in contact with moisture or sweat. This widens yarn lines, allowing more airflow; the yarn lines are gradually restored as it dries.

The second category is made up of new fibres that contain actual circuitry and sensors, with filaments twisted into the textile structure. Much like the sensors in a fitness band or smartwatch, these sensors can monitor a number of conditions ranging from body and ambient temperature to heart rate and sunlight intensity; they can pair with a smartphone or health metrics app.

This is a fast-growing category. Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) lab has created a removable piece of hardware it calls the Jacquard Tag, which can be embedded in textiles, apparel and accessories (such as backpacks) containing conductive metal alloys. In the Levi’s Trucker Jacket, the tag sits inside the left cuff, connects wirelessly with a smartphone, and notifies the wearer with gentle vibrations every time the phone pings. The tag can also be tapped or swiped to control some phone functions, such as the camera.

In a similar vein, the SoundShirt by wearable tech brand CuteCircuit contains 28 haptic feedback motors that allow the wearer (it’s meant for those with difficulty hearing) to feel vibrations from music, captured via an integrated microphone.

It was CuteCircuit, incidentally, that made the “Twitter Dress” for American singer Nicole Scherzinger in 2012. The dress used circuitry woven into fabric to display live tweets from fans, using a mix of thousands of tiny LED lights and Swarovski crystals, with data connectivity provided by UK’s EE mobile network via an embedded e-SIM module (much like the ones smartwatches and cars have these days).

Tech giants Apple and Microsoft have secured patents for smart apparel along these lines too.

This is a sector that’s started to go mainstream, with smart apparel now available off the rack. Most items aren’t outrageously priced either. The Levi’s Trucker Jacket with Jacquard Tag costs $139 (about 10,000). Prices for the Nike Pro line of AeroAdapt jackets, pants and vests start at $150 (about 11,000). According to research firm Global Market Insights, the smart and interactive textiles market will surpass $6.5 billion globally by 2024, up from $2.3 billion in 2021. The question, then, isn’t can you pay for a shirt with alerts but, perhaps, why you’d want to do this.

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