Smart Clothes: The Future Of Enterprise Wearables

by Sohini Bagchi    Mar 14, 2017

smart clothes

Smart wearables are making their way into the enterprise. While, the current market for wearables is mostly focused on the wrist with Fitbit fitness trackers, and the Apple Watch leading the space, analysts believe the future of the wearable industry is much beyond and enterprises will be the biggest gainers from this revolution. Enter smart clothing - that can be embedded with sensors, connected to smartphones that can now communicate with our devices.

The latest innovations

While the The idea of smart clothing is not new, Steve Mann, an MIT researcher, wrote in 1966, “Clothing can enhance our capabilities without requiring any conscious efforts. These capabilities can range from sensing to providing stimuli, to visual effects. In real world however, it is yet to become mainstream, even though some concerted efforts are now seen in this space.

The latest one is a new jacket introduced by Levi’s and made in partnership with Google’s Project Jacquard, a division within the company’s Advanced Technology and Projects, or ATAP, group.

The Jacquard division pioneered conductive fibers that are woven directly into clothing, so that motions you make on the left cuff of the jacket’s sleeve register as touch inputs, as if it were a screen. Those are then sent to your smartphone via a Bluetooth attachment that clips on as a cufflink. The conductive fibers are flexible and can be washed — though the actual electronics are handled by the cufflink, which you have to remove before you wash the jacket.

Another recent innovation available in the market is Arrow smart shirts, a brand from formal shirt maker Arvind Limited, that comes with an inbuilt chip on the cuff that can be programmed by downloading the Arrow mobile app on a near field communication (NFC)-enabled smartphone. Available at a price of Rs 2,999, users wearing the shirt can also share their business card or send their LinkedIn profile to an acquaintance during business meetings by tapping their phone on the cuff. 

“We had to put in a lot research and had to experiment with various options before launching the final product. We had to ensure that the shirt was easy to use and comfortable to wear at the same time. One of the key parameters for us was also to ensure that maintenance of the shirt was easy. This is a shirt that was tested for multiple washes,” said a spokesperson for Arvind Lifestyle Brand. 

Shaping the future

new report from Tractica, which predicts consumers will be buying more than 10 million pieces of smart clothing yearly by 2020. At present some of these clothes have an athletic appeal. Sports enthusiasts are using sensor-infused shirts, shorts, sports bras, and socks that provide biometric data on muscle activity, breathing rate, and heart activity zones. 

Over the next 5 years, smart clothing will begin to look less like athletic pieces and more like casual and corporate wear. “The ultimate wearable computer is a piece of smart clothing that one can wear as a garment or a body sensor that can track and measure specific vital signs,” said Aditya Kaul, Research Director, Tractica stating that“Both of these device categories are designed to seamlessly integrate with users’ daily lives.”

Tractica forecasts that cumulative worldwide shipments of smart clothing and body sensors will total 190 million units between 2015 and 2021, with annual shipments reaching 92.7 million devices by the end of that period. The firm anticipates that body sensors will represent approximately 70% of the total market, with smart clothing accounting for about 30%.

“Smart clothing and body sensors can be considered the ultimate wearables, integrating into your life as a garment, footwear, or sensor device that can track or measure a specific physiological or biometric attribute,” says research director Aditya Kaul. “Unlike fitness trackers, smart watches, or smart glasses, which have fairly well-defined form factors and use cases, smart clothing and body sensors are seeing a greater degree of experimentation and innovation,” he said.

Gartner has made an even ambitious forecast that shipments of smart garment will touch 26 million by 2020, 7 million more than smart wristbands that same year.

“Because smartshirts and other smart garments can hold more sensors closer to the skin, they can collect more information and produce better data, like the full wave of the heart beat rather than just the pulse,” said Gartner research director Angela McIntyre said in a report.

Since most wearables are fitness-focused, most smart clothing so far has followed in those footsteps with incredibly accurate fitness metrics and detailed analysis of workouts. Thankfully, more companies are beginning to think beyond the gym, and the smart clothes they are working on may be the future of wearable tech.

The applications for these devices span a range of markets including high fashion, medical devices, professional apparel, professional sports, mental wellness, and baby monitors, to name a few, Kaul said.

Researchers have now developed a new concept of electrical energy storage—thermally chargeable solid-state supercapacitors, which allows charging to be completed using heat energy in addition to the traditional electrical charging method for capacitors. “This is the first time that it has been discovered that a solid-state polymer electrolyte can produce large thermally induced voltage,” Choongho Yu, professor at Texas A&M University in the US said in a report. “The voltage can then be used to initiate an electrochemical reaction in electrodes for charging,” Yu added. [Read the full report here]

The supercapacitor works by converting thermal energy into electrical energy and then storing it in the device at the same time. Human body heat, or any heat dissipating objects that create temperature differences from their surroundings, can be used to charge the capacitor without any external power source, it said.