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Smart clothing expected to take off

Innovations, such as weaving circuitry into clothing, could help turn wearable computing into a $1.3 billion annual market, according to a new report.

Wearable computing has so far been little more than a curiosity, but new technology and falling prices will mean dramatic growth for such products in the next few years, according to a new report.

A report published this week by research firm Venture Development predicts that shipments of wearable computers--such as those worn on the wrist, belt and ear or those built into fabric itself--will grow by more than 50 percent each year through 2006. Shipments totaled more than $70 million in 2001 and are expected to reach $563 million in 2006, the company said.

Those figures could end up being conservative, the company said, if innovations such as building computers into fabric prove a success.

"The true potential for wearable computing in 2006 could be well over $1.3 billion, if improvements are made in consumer-based products, including commercially viable 'smart fabric' technology," lead analyst Tim Shea said in a statement.

As miniaturization progresses, consumer electronics manufacturers and chipmakers are managing to squeeze digital music players, Internet-surfing devices, mobile phones and related devices into smaller and smaller packages. Some of the wearable designs remain concept prototypes on display only at cyber-fashion shows; others are already, or will soon be, on sale.

In some cases, simply making technology more portable can create a new class of products, as Sony found when it created the Walkman decades back. This trend will is even more pronounced in an emerging class of devices embedded into ordinary clothing fabrics, Venture Development said.

"In the near future, these smart fabric products will... integrate a vast array of sensors into everyday products," the report said.

A key application will be bio-monitoring, which collects information for medical purposes, the report said. Taking this a step further, some parents are already fitting their children with wearable monitors that can be used to track their whereabouts.

Internet and PDA (personal digital assistant) functions will also drive sales, the report predicts.

Falling prices and rapid advancement in speech recognition technology and head-worn displays will make wearable devices more attractive to consumers, the report adds.

Such features are already being built into some cutting-edge products. In the United States and Asia, companies are beginning to offer cell phones designed to be worn around the neck, like jewelry.

Chipmaker Infineon has created a packaging technology that allows circuitry to be woven into ordinary fabrics, which can then be normally washed or even dry-cleaned. The company created a prototype jacket with an embedded MP3 player and asserts that products such as identification tags could be built into clothes within two years.

Companies such as California's Charmed Technology specialize in fashion-centric devices. Fossil, which is best known for trendy watches, has created wrist devices that exchange information with handheld computers via infrared, and Sony is selling a "wearable" digital camera that is slightly smaller than a credit card.

Other wearable research is still at the concept stage. IBM, for example, has a research center focusing on what it terms "pervasive computing." Orang-Otang Computers has patented designs for gadgets like a phone that fits under a shirt sleeve, a wrist-mounted audio recorder, a wearable laptop and a wearable camera.

The report was based on a Web survey and individual interviews with 471 consumers, as well as industry executives.

ZDNet UK's Matthew Broersma reported from London.