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Time to Make Wearable Technology Worth Wearing

What do clothes and cars have in common? A lot more than meets the eye.

“Fifty years ago you could have counted all the sensors in a car on one hand. Most of the cars built today have at least 100,” Michael Corbett, general manager of Weel Technologies, declared recently at Wear Conference in Boston.

Still not making the connection between clothes and cars? The myriad symbols living on a car’s dashboard light up to let the driver know when the engine is too hot, tire pressure is low, oil is running out, or that it’s short on gas.

Now consider the evolution of fitness trackers. People are moving away from wearing smart wristbands that log their steps and sync with an app on their mobile device, as companies start to integrate the technology into clothing that can leverage biosignals to interpret physiological effort.

Take OmSignal, for example. The Canadian company has developed a “smart” sports bra for women that wirelessly records real-time biometrics (think: heart rate, cadence and calories burned) and delivers the data straight to an app on the user’s phone. The app then processes those biosignals, figures out the wearer’s level of physiological fatigue and gets into coach mode. It’s similar to when a warning light tells a driver stuck in stop-and-go traffic to keep the car in neutral because the engine is starting to overheat.

“Smart apparel embedded with sensors is the catalyst for the next wave of wearable technology,” said Stéphane Marceau, co-founder and chief executive of OmSignal, another Wear Conference attendee. He added, “With smart textiles, you can acquire biosignal wherever it happens [as opposed to inaccurate wrist-measured metrics].”

Joel Furey, chief commercial officer of antimicrobial provider Noble Biomaterials, agreed. “When we look at consumer needs within the wearable technology space, it’s providing data,” he said. “And the translation of that data into actionable information—that’s really important. But the key is the ability to provide that data in a way that doesn’t change the user’s experience with that product as they would normally use it.”

No more tech for tech’s sake

“Everybody expects that, at some point, our everyday clothes are going to be smart,” Marceau said. “Consumers want fashion that is tech-enabled. But they also want technology that’s fashionable.”

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So while the notion of smart apparel is not new (university labs have been prototyping products for the last 20 years), the fashion and technology industries are at odds with each other. But it’s high time they figured out how to work together.

“In fashion, emotion is the killer application. [Most wearables on the market are] not tapping into all of the things that are amazing about why people want to wear fashion and make fashion. It’s about expression, identity and desire and we need to be thinking more holistically across these,” stressed Dr. Amanda Parkes, chief of technology and research at Brooklyn-based Manufacture New York.

Liza Kindred, founder of global think-tank Third Wave Fashion, had a similar sentiment. “In order for mass adoption, for wearable technology to work, the technology has to disappear,” she said. “No more tech for tech’s sake.”

That means no bells and whistles–at least, not ones that can be seen.

Gihan Amarasiriwardena, co-founder of Boston-based “performance professional” clothing label Ministry of Supply, echoed this attitude at the most recent edition of Product Innovation Apparel in New York. “It’s about unlocking a better garment for us all,” he said.

Find a problem, create a solution

As a recent Wall Street Journal article titled “Some Smart Things Turn Out to Be Pretty Dumb” pointed out, instead of solving the hassles of everyday life, most “smart” products actually create more of them.

An old but good example: Levi’s RedWire DLX iPod jeans. And no one would blame Paul Dillinger, head of global product innovation at Levi Strauss & Co., for feeling embarrassed when the vice president and general manager of digital sport at Adidas, Stacey Burr, brandished a pair during a discussion at Wear Conference.

Released a decade ago, the jeans came with an iPod connection built onto the end of a red ribbon in a side pocket, a separate control pad on a front pocket and a set of retractable earphones. The short-lived product screamed technology. Worse, if the jeans needed to be laundered everything had to be removed.

That couldn’t be further from Levi’s latest foray into wearables with Google ATAP’s Project Jacquard—a trucker jacket designed for urban cyclists, featuring a subtle swatch of smart fabric woven with conductive yarns on one sleeve that’s powered by a dongle disguised to look like the snaps on the rest of the garment. A corresponding smartphone app can be configured so that a simple gesture can answer a call, play music or access directions. (The jacket can also be thrown in the washing machine.)

“For us as a brand there had to be a need, a problem to be solved. This was the solution that came out of it,” Dillinger explained. “A garment that can respond to social media buzz is interesting, but one that can help you ride a bike safely is necessary. We didn’t want to take on a project that seemed nifty and cute.”

“Creating a garment which only does one thing feels gimmicky or at some point gets boring. We decided that’s not going to be the case with this jacket,” Ivan Poupyrev, technical program lead at Google ATAP, said. “The idea is to start thinking about wearables as a garment that’s giving access to almost critical functions you would like to use.”

That’s something that people will likely demand more of.

“As the consumer evolves, the expectation increasingly is that technology will integrate into textile materials. I think that’s an expectation by consumers broadly,” Furey asserted.

Kindred agreed. “As consumers, we’re really going to start asking ourselves ‘This looks good, but what does it do?’” she said. “It’s about making wearable technology that’s worth wearing.”

To that end, expect to see more materials suppliers, component makers and apparel developers coming together to make conductive inks and stretchable circuit-printed films. Currently, the likes of Sensoria integrates stretchable silver-based conductive yarns in its socks to wirelessly transit data to a mobile app, while DuPont offers a suite of inks that can be used to create thin, form-fitting and flexible circuits that can be seamlessly bonded with standard fabrics. But experts said that’s just a taste of what’s to come.

And the market share is there for the taking.

“All kinds of cool things are possible,” said Mikko Malmivaara, founder of Clothing Plus, a developer and manufacturer of textile-integrated electronics. “It isn’t about the signal. It isn’t about what you measure. It’s about the application. But you have to know what information you want to present to your end user, what the added value is.”