Designing smart, connected garments must begin with an emotional experience, says Sarah Krasley, as she talks to Billie Whitehouse, founder of fashion and technology company Wearable Experiments
It’s no surprise that many of the stories in this magazine feature products that are connected to the internet in some way or another.
There is currently a mad dash in product design and engineering to find meaningful and lucrative ways to turn ‘dumb’ products into the smart, connected ones that will make up the almighty Internet of Things (IoT).
Most of the connected products for sale now are designed to ‘listen’, via sensors, actuators, pedometers and so on. The connected product measures what is going on around it, the data is collected in the cloud and analytics are built on top to make sense of it all.
Futurists predict that soon, connected products will not only listen but collaborate and adapt. Humans, in turn, will become simultaneously more productive and more useless.
Sometimes, connected devices look like something from The Dark Crystal. Sometimes, they look very stylish. In almost all cases, they make a strong first impression, be it good or bad.
Those that are less noticeable tend to fall into a new class of products, loosely referred to as ‘connected clothing’ or ‘connected textiles’.
To learn a little more about this product class, I sat down with Billie Whitehouse, co-founder of Wearable Experiments, a company based in New York City and Sydney that blends fashion and technology to create what it calls ‘lasting experiences’.
It seems like an exciting time to work with connected textiles because fibre integration is becoming really sophisticated. Take, for example, Google’s Project Jaquard: earlier this year, the tech giant launched an initiative to co-mingle conductive fibres with cotton, silk and wool using standard industrial looms.
While not yet fully commercialised, Project Jacquard stands to not only scale connected textiles through ease of production but also make the infrastructure for haptics, illumination and power almost invisible.
This is the main aim of connected clothing. Just as someone designing consumer electronics strives for light weight, sleekness and speed, “a connected clothing designer strives for invisibility and softness.
When these elements are included, the experience can be far more emotional and impactful and less about an experience with data. Designers can begin to affect a user’s experience in unprecedented ways,” Whitehouse explains.
The greatest proportion of connected clothing items on the market today is targeted towards fitness and active wear.
Products like the OM Smart Shirt and OM Smart Box capture data from workouts and an accompanying app displays the data in a dashboard.
But more general-purpose garments are on the horizon. Wearable Experiments recently released a jacket called Navigate, which uses the Google Maps API to guide a user to a destination they’ve entered into the app, along with the means by which they plan to get there (by bus, walking or driving, for example.)
Through a series of haptic shoulder taps, the jacket nudges the user to turn left or right, so that they can explore a location unencumbered by a map or by earphones that drown out the sounds of the city.
The mass appeal of a jacket like this is easy to appreciate, but Whitehouse believes a product like this can also help specific groups of users, such as elderly users or those with Alzheimer’s Disease, who can easily become disoriented.
While the $604 billion global apparel market is nothing to scoff at, Whitehouse feels that there are also big opportunities for connected textiles in automotive and interior design applications. But again, the scope of a project must begin with understanding the basic emotions implicit in a value proposition.
“For example,” Whitehouse postulates, “a car’s job is to keep those inside and around it safe while transporting riders to a destination. Cameras inside cars will be able to detect drowsiness in a driver and signal a haptic pulse to the palms to remind the driver to stay alert.”
In terms of barriers, battery power for haptic motors is still a limiting factor. However, Whitehouse believes there are fantastic opportunities ahead. The battery industry is starting to view the body and the battery as having a symbiotic relationship.
Instead of trying to conceal a battery in the seams of a garment, connected clothing designers can start to think more strategically about positioning the battery so that it collects warmth from the body to generate energy, for example.
For smart clothing and its designers, it seems, there’s still plenty of potential to get even smarter.
Sarah Krasley is the founder and principal of Unreasonable Women, a NYC-based product, service and workplace policy design firm. She is also an Adjunct Professor at New York University’s ITP Program.
We speak to Wearable Experiments about its connected smart clothing