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Smart Fabrics & Wearable Technology: Ready for Prime Time?

Wearable technology may sound like an oxymoron; but if you use a wireless fitness tracking device such as Fitbit, Jawbone Up, Nike FuelBand, or Adidas MiCoach, you are an early adopter of wearable technology.

And if you are one of the 45 percent of American adults with at least one chronic health issue, you may be wearing a device that monitors your heart rate, sleep patterns, stress levels, blood oxygen, temperature, or other functions, and communicates the information digitally to your health care provider.

The wearable electronics market was worth $2.7 billion in 2012, and is expected to reach $8.3 billion by 2018, according to Health 2.0, an organization that promotes new technologies in health care. But “wearables” have yet to break into the mainstream market. Among the one in ten American adult consumers who own some form of wearable activity tracker, 50 percent no longer use it; and one third stopped using it within six months.

At the Smithers Apex Smart Fabrics & Wearable Technology Conference 2014 in San Francisco from April 23–24, experts in the field offered various takes on how far the industry has come, its potential for growth and the challenges that lie ahead, along with the new paradigms in design and manufacturing that just might alter the future of apparel.

In her opening remarks, Stacy Burr, VP of wearable sports electronics for Adidas and member of the Smart Fabrics advisory board, identified the need for a better relationship between the wearer and the wearable. She challenged the industry to improve the user experience by creating smart fabrics and wearable technologies that are “beautiful, useful, and intuitive.” The conference presented a host of new products that are working to meet that challenge.

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For example, Misfit Wearables’ Shine is an activity monitor designed as jewellery. Misfit CEO Sonny Vu believes that wearable technology must be “easy, fun, elegant, and engaging.” The LumoLiftâ„¢ by Lumo Body Tech tracks upper body posture via a discreet, jewelled sensor that attaches with a magnetic clasp and offers a gentle vibration when the wearer slouches.

Paul Litchfield, VP for advanced concepts at Reebok International, spoke about developing wearable fitness electronics that are “compelling” rather than just nice to have. The recently-introduced Reebok CHECKLIGHT monitors head impact and concussion potential via a sensor-fitted skull cap with an easy-to-read traffic light display. The cap “needed to look cool so kids would wear it;” parents and coaches of young athletes find the potential to reduce concussions compelling.

Comfort and ease of use are critical. Vancive Medical Technologies’ Metriaâ„¢ IH1 physiological monitor is a disposable adhesive patch, worn like a BandAid for a week. New forms of lighting such as electroluminescent lamps and organic LEDs are making possible flexible form factors for everything from curved TV screens to snap band displays to personal lighting systems.

For the most part, today’s “smart clothing” utilizes heat-sealed sensors and conductive yarns; and the industry still struggles to create the truly electronic textiles needed to provide our clothing with invisible technology. For Akseli Reho, CEO of Clothing+, “Truly wearable apps need to be implemented into things we are already wearing.”

When wearables company Heapsylon began development of their recently launched Sensoria® fitness platform and smart garments, they were unable to find appropriate sensor materials that were thin, soft and washable–so they developed their own. CEO Davide Vigano describes the company’s vision as “The garment is the computer”

The industry’s missing link is e-textile yarns that will replace conductive materials, enabling smart fabrics that will replace sensor technology. Led by Professor Tilak Dias, head of advanced textiles research at Nottingham Trend University, a team has been working for several years on the development of textile yarns that incorporate micro semi-conductor chips.

Paul Brody, VP and global industry leader for electronics at IBM, spoke about “a disruptive transformation” in design and manufacturing. Manufacturing in the future, he told the conference, will be led by 3D printing, intelligent robotics, and open sourcing/design sharing. Certainly the 3D garments presented by designers Julia Koerner and Anouk Wipprecht were inspiring as one-offs; but there is a long road to commercialization for the process.

There are other factors involved getting wearable technologies to market, such as retail buyers who can’t decide in what department the products belong. But as Brody pointed out, consumers are engaging directly with designers via social networking, and crowdfunding sites are lowering the entry barriers for a new generation of entrepreneurs.

In closing the conference, Intel Corporation’s VP for new devices and general manager of the smart device innovation team, Steven Homes, said that the importance of bringing the worlds of design and technology together cannot be underestimated. Technology will enable not only what we wear, but the way we manufacture it.