Smart Clothing – The Future of Wearable Tech

What do the following items have in common? A  jacket with GPS plus integrated hands free communication. A self-defending Spider dress that will flash lights and flail its ‘legs’ if an enemy gets too close. And finally, a T-shirt which incorporates NASA spacesuit technology to measure a wearer’s temperature and moisture output. You guessed it, all these items are classified as today’s ‘smart clothing.’

While any one of these pieces could have been taken from the wardrobe of a fictional spy movie character, the reality is that all of the above-mentioned are clothing items that presently exist and are becoming available to the masses.

Smart clothing explained

Smart clothing, also known as digital clothing or wearable tech, exists at the intersection of technology and fashion. This category of apparel is distinguished by the technology embedded into the apparel’s fabric and overall design to make them ‘smart’. The smart features are often achieved through with a combination of lighting / screens, batteries, sensors, and micro-processors.

The main purpose of smart clothing is to provide valuable information to the wearer about his or body and the environment around them. In addition to this, there is an emerging demand for digital clothing that is designed purely for aesthetic. As a whole, digital / smart clothing typically incorporates  performance enhancing materials ( body temperature regulation, muscle flex and vitals recording) and stylish designs. The main difference between smart clothing and wearable tech, (such as the smartwatch) is that with smart clothing there is a large emphasis on the seamless integration of the fabrics, with electronic element whereas wearable tech is are classified as smart electronic devices (electronic device with micro-controllers) that can be worn on the body as implants or accessories.

Let’s talk about current developments

Currently a large area of focus for digital clothing is in the sportswear and healthcare industries. A few shining examples include the company Hexoskin located in Quebec, Canada. They make smart shirts which monitor an individual’s heart rate, breathing, sleep cycles and physical activity. The shirts come with the option to download and analyse the data it collects. A German company by the name of  Flexiwarm is incorporating body temperature control in its clothing; especially useful in extreme weather conditions. While companies like Airawear are able to make smart jackets which massage the user, and correct their posture to prevent back damage.

Perhaps more critical, is the development of smart clothing for firefighters and rescue workers. We now have the technology to incorporate into protective wear sensors that can detect toxic chemicals in the environment, track their locations, and even communicate with other team members.

Finally, about that Spider dress, designer Anouk Wipprecht is paving the way in the realm of aesthetically pleasing fashion tech pieces. The spider dress comes equipped with robotic spider legs framing the collar. The legs are activated by computer and sensor technologies, responding to both the breathing rate of the wearer, as well as the speed of approach and proximity of potential predators (other people close by).

Future implications

Until now, the development of smart clothing has been largely for health functions and sportswear, however with advancing technology, people will begin to demand more from their clothing forcing companies to seek to produce clothes that instinctively understand the needs of their customers both in terms of technology, and fashion.

While smart clothing is a relatively new and somewhat exclusive concept, the next 2 years will most likely reveal a surge in companies offering a variety of affordable items to the market and in more main stream outlets. The natural evolution will most likely be towards clothing that is more useful for people in day to day situations and can interact with other gadgets.