Goodbye, Gimmicks, Hello, Smart Solutions: Wearable Tech Shows Signs of Growing Up

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s April 1 announcement was no April Fool’s joke. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is leading a Cambridge, Mass.-based consortium of 89 universities, manufacturers, startup incubators, and non-profit organizations known as the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America that, working in partnership with the Department of Defense, is dedicated to innovating in textile manufacturing, leveraging the Northeast’s network of factories to advance the industry. The consortium also is leading the Revolutionary Fibers and Textiles Manufacturing Innovation Institute, flush with $75 million in federal funding and close to $250 million in resources from other organizations and tasked with creating, for example, novel textiles that incorporate the high-tech sensing capabilities typical of a smartwatch into a fabric.

When the government gets in on the action, you know wearables officially have arrived.

No longer just the realm of gimmicky, fringe curiosities — though there’s certainly a place for that in the world of fashion and apparel — wearable tech is maturing into an ecosystem in which creators are more consistently seeking to develop practical solutions and commercial products instead of flashy one-offs meant to grab a headline and not much else. According to market research firm Tractica, total shipments of smart clothing are forecast to grow from 968,000 units in 2015 to 24.75 million units in 2021.

And while some in the space are researching wearable tech in ways that seem and sound familiar, a crop of fresh faces is thinking outside the box to circumvent some of the issues with the sensor-in-garment conundrum that have stymied the greater wearables potential.

A walking network
At Ohio State University — a consortium member school — Dr. John Volakis, director of the ElectroScience Laboratory, and his team achieved a significant first. Using a standard sewing machine, they’ve embroidered polymerized silver threads into fabric that creates a circuit “as good as a standard circuit board,” says Dr. Volakis. At 0.1 mm in precision, the embroidered circuits have different frequencies depending on their geometric shape, and linked together can create a broadband network in a shirt or jacket to ensure that the smartphone you’re carrying, for example, always has good reception.

Dr. Volakis sees tremendous potential for wearables in the health monitoring space as well. Elderly patients don’t particularly care to be hooked up to a lot of electronics, he explains, but a regular-looking shirt that can sense and transmit their glucose levels and blood work would yield high compliance. “All of these measurements that you’d usually have to go to a hospital for can be done remotely,” he says.

Ink + LED
Meanwhile over in Brooklyn, three-year-old The Crated is taking a different approach to the industry. A member of Pratt Institute’s Brooklyn Fashion and Design Accelerator and a participating company in XRC Labs on the Parsons New School campus, The Crated exists to revolutionize and pioneer wearable tech by integrating technology into apparel in a way that’s both responsive and intuitive, says Janett Martinez, client relations and systems manager. The startup does its own thing in-house but also works with brands, including The North Face, on a product development basis.

What sets The Crated apart, according to Martinez, is its commitment to finding solutions within the confines of the current manufacturing environment. “We’re working with existing manufacturing technologies,” she explains. “We don’t expect them to adapt to us so we adapt to them.”

One of those challenges is the way most manufacturing facilities are set up. “You can’t have soldering in a garment factory so you have do it offsite or eliminate it altogether,” says Maddy Maxey, The Crated founder and president, of the problems of using electronics in clothing. The point of an electronic wire is to conduct, but wires have limited flexibility and aren’t easily integrated into apparel. And let’s face it: you’re probably not going to throw clothing with a bunch of wires in it into the washing machine.

As it turns out, conductive ink eliminates a lot of these issues. The Crated applied for a patent in November 2015 for its proprietary INTELiTEX breakthrough, a washable flexible conductive ink that transmits signals and makes any garment a smart garment. Maxey is mum on the details since INTELiTEX is patent-pending but she believes the technology will be especially useful for companies doing body mapping and developing tight-fitting garments that need flexible circuitry, such as suits for deep-sea diving or space exploration. On the more down-to-earth side, INTELiTEX could lead to lighter-weight heated jackets.

The Crated also worked with Google on its Made w/ Code fashion project, partnering with Zac Posen to develop an LED dress that closed the designer’s fall Fashion Week diffusion line show last year. Made w/ Code was created to get girls interested in coding and discover the many ways that programming languages affect our everyday lives. Anyone can go onto and tinker with their own LED dress, choosing the color of the lights, where they’re positioned and how they move and flash across the body. Maxey, a Google Made w/ Code mentor, says that for the girls participating in the program, seeing a version of the dress that they helped to envision come to life on the runway was a real treat.

Making the dress required quite a bit of brainpower. Each of the myriad LED lights represents a potential breaking point, says Maxey, and each requires battery power. The Crated created an electronics textile shield containing all of the circuitry that looks like a bodice and can be slipped in and out of the dress. The garment itself is straightforward in silhouette, a cap-sleeved A-line number made out of a black mesh material, something substantial enough to support all of the lights but not too thick so as to prevent them from fully shining through. “We were putting a bunch of swatches over light and seeing what we liked,” says Maxey. The Crated worked with a team in London on prototyping and fabrication, with the final garment produced at Posen’s New York studio.

Close to the action
If you’re a sports nut, you can’t get close enough to the hard hits, the game-winning goals, all the heart-pounding excitement of cheering your team on to victory. That’s what Wearable Experiments co-founder Billie Whitehouse had in mind when coming up with the Fan Jersey, a garment that looks like your typical football jersey and is made out of typical jersey fabric but features embedded haptics that translate the on-field action to a variety of sensations and vibrations on the wearer’s body. From first downs and touchdowns to fumbles and field goals, enthusiasts wearing a Fan Jersey will get buzzed and zapped (harmlessly, of course) during each momentous play.

Here’s how it works: most major sports games feature a live data feed, often collected and analyzed by Swiss powerhouse Sportradar AG. “It’s the biggest data company worldwide for live sports data,” Whitehouse explains. The athletes themselves also generate data via sensors embedded in their helmets and pads, for example. Wearable Experiments got permission to link Sportradar’s data feed into its servers, which communicates with your phone once you’ve downloaded the Sportradar app and selected which team and game you’re following. As you’re getting the play-by-play feed of your team’s game, your phone uses Bluetooth to translate all of the big game highlights to sensations you can feel on your body.

Whitehouse says it’s difficult to properly convey what those sensations feel like. “It’s not like Apple Watch haptics, which are just a buzz,” she says. “It’s like a speeding-up heart. There are different feelings for different plays, spread out across the chest, v-neck area, and collarbone out to the shoulder.”

While perhaps not suitable for those fitted with pacemakers, the Fan Jersey and all of its vibrations are safe for everyone else, says Whitehouse. Wearable Experiments contracted out software design to Snepo in Sydney, and RF Digital in Los Angeles contributed to the hardware.

Sri Lanka’s MAS Holdings was a strategic partner in producing the final jerseys. “When we decided to start thinking about scaling up and producing in larger quantities, they were the ones everyone was talking about, from ASOS to Thinx,” Whitehouse explains. Her company is working on getting MAS to behave “more like a startup.” Careful not to reveal MAS’s trade secrets, Whitehouse says the manufacturer figured out a novel way to integrate haptics that had never been done before.  

Not yet commercially available, the Fan Jersey debuted at the 2016 Super Bowl in San Francisco, with Bud Light as a partner at one of two launch parties. Starting off with the NFL and its 75 million football fans was a no-brainer, says Whitehouse, but Wearable Experiments made sure to release a similar fan jersey in time for the UEFA European Championship, which overtook soccer-mad Europe on June 10.    

While Wearable Experiments has plans to work with teams and businesses on branded apparel sold through traditional channels, Whitehouse says “anyplace where someone watches a game is a retail opportunity.” 

Jessica Binns is a freelance writer in New York City focusing on fashion, retail and technology.