Alexa: she’s in our homes, our cars, our phones, and now she’s in our outerwear.
At least, she’s in the new $295 Mercury Intelligent Heated Jacket that Ministry of Supply is launching on Kickstarter through a campaign that blew past its original funding goal of $72,000 in a matter of hours, and now has raised more than $316,000.
And she’s there to make staying warm (or cooling down) as a simple as a voice command.
Gihan Amarasiriwardena, Ministry of Supply president and co-founder, said the company first became interested in the problem of temperature regulation, among the biggest pain points during the daily commute, in its previous office space, an old building in which keeping a consistent temperature was a regular challenge. After replacing an outdated thermostat with a Nest, Ministry of Supply then set about trying to find a temperature suitable for all employees. “It learns over time how to maintain an ideal temperature,” he said. And that’s when the idea hatched: who wouldn’t want that same level of comfort and control in a garment?
Though it’s been making outerwear for the past four years, the Mercury heated jacket represents the first time Ministry of Supply is incorporating hardware into the garment, thanks to lithium batteries becoming lighter, cheaper and higher in power density and carbon fiber heating technology now robust enough to withstand machine washing. And while there are plenty of heated jackets with built-in hardware, they typically rely on the wearer manually turning the heat up or down every single time.
Below, see what went into the jacket.
AI and Machine Learning
That’s where Ministry of Supply thinks artificial intelligence, courtesy of Alexa, and machine learning can really make a difference. Featuring temperature sensors both inside and out, plus a built-in accelerometer as part of the microcomputer that controls the garment, the Mercury can detect the wearer’s activity and adjust accordingly. When the wearer is standing at a bus stop, for example, the Mercury might bump up the temperature a bit, Amarasiriwardena said, but turn the heat down for someone running to catch the cross-town bus.
The jacket, of course, comes with an app that connects via Bluetooth and syncs up with Alexa to simplify voice controls; over time, through machine learning, it gets a sense of the wearer’s temperature preferences. At first, however, the jacket is “primed” by a number of test wearers. “Initially, we train the garment based on several people who’ve worn it,” Amarasiriwardena said. But for those who “run hot,” there’s always the option of the manual override until Mercury figures out the wearer’s just-right temperature.
“Every time you interact with it, the app learns the behavior. It looks at the outside temperature plus the body temperature to make the decision” to turn the heat up or down, Amarasiriwardena added. “Comfort is based on individuality and how bodies respond, how much heat is generated.”
Through the Internet of Things, the heated jacket gathers data on the wearer’s temperature, activities and more, that’s all shared with Ministry of Supply and could inform future product development. Given how connected consumers have become—as well as the enthusiastic response to the Kickstarter campaign—one wonders if privacy concerns over sharing personal data are a thing of the past.
Technology + Design
To bring the jacket to life, Ministry of Supply partnered with Singtex, a sustainable fabrics manufacturer that has previous experience with heated garments, and MEC Addheat, a Taiwanese manufacturer that’s the world’s largest producer of heated apparel, plus its regular contract manufacturer out of Fuzhou, China. For the human robotics, machine learning and microcomputer element, the apparel brand turned to Dephy, a startup spun out of the MIT Media Lab that focuses on wearable robotics.
Because Ministry of Supply itself started on Kickstarter many years, much of its devoted customer base comes from that community, which “values technology and design,” Amarasiriwardena said. “We wouldn’t necessarily have launched [Mercury] through our own channel because there’s a lot of development and production costs associated with it. Having some market validation is key.”
That initial $72,000 campaign goal was intended to cover the costs of a small run of the chips that power the heated jacket. However, “it seems there’s enough demand to be an ongoing product,” Amarasiriwardena said.