First it was smartphones. Then it was wearables. Next, the connected revolution could be about to change the clothes you wear.
That's according to Clothing+, a company looking to help fashion and sportswear brands add technology to our clothes to create connected, data-collecting smart garments. Clothing+ has come up with Peak+, a blueprint for smart clothing that seamlessly monitors our health and activity in and out of the gym without having to mess with a fitness tracker or smartwatch. CNET chatted with John Dargan, CEO of Clothing+, to find out more about Peak+ and his vision for the future of fashion.
Anyone who's ever used a fitness tracker can see the value of clothing that quietly does away with the fuss of separate fitness trackers. And fashion, sportswear and other clothing manufacturers can see the potential value of this new market. But according to Dargan, the integration of technology with clothing has been beyond traditional clothing brands. "They're kind of stumbling around," he says. "It's just a minefield for them to work through."
That's where the Peak+ reference design from Clothing+ comes in. A Finnish company that makes sensors and heart rate monitors, Clothing+ worked with Adidas to develop the miCoach Elite system worn by athletes as they train. It collects data on their heart rate, speed, distance travelled and acceleration, all beamed direct to coaches to view on their iPad. The system was used by several national soccer teams during the 2014 World Cup, including tournament winners Germany. With Peak+, Clothing+ wants to put that kind of technological advantage into your kit bag by making it easy for brands such as Adidas to adopt new technology into their own smart garments.
Once, manufacturers sold you a phone or a TV or any gadget, and that was the end of the transaction. But now, in the Internet age, your gadget is a conduit for a brand to continue to talk to you and, more importantly, sell you stuff, such as further products in the same app or clothing ecosystem.
"Brands want to get beyond the transactional," says Dargan. "Some of these brands now are offering lifestyle advice, diet advice, recipes, that type of thing -- they really are broadening their relationship with their customers. They want to have a more engaging lifestyle-type relationship with their consumers."
As part of this trend, currently available products such as discrete heart-rate monitoring straps, made by companies such as Garmin and Suunto, are evolving into actual garments with the technology built-in, such as sports bras or compression shirts.
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Dargan highlights sporting apparel manufacturers that are getting into this area, such as Under Armour, Nike and Lululemon. This year sportswear brand Under Armour bought the fitness apps MyFitnessPal and Endomondo, while Adidas bought the app RunTastic. Activewear is such a valuable growth area other clothing brands like lingerie company Victoria's Secret are also joining the race with its VSX range of sportswear.
"Female activewear is one of the most valuable and fastest-growing markets," says Dargan. "In the next year you're going to see it start with ranges of sports bras with embedded sensors, you're going to see a lot more of that from fashion brands in the next year."
Dargan says, however, that brands have "a high level of awareness [of the potential in these new markets] but not much technology awareness."
Peak+ is designed to provide a simple solution to that problem. "They can find app companies, they can find data analytics, they can find transmitters, but how do you piece it all together?" asks Dargan. "So we've looked at their market to understand what they want, and our reference design is for shirts and bras with monitoring integrated into the garment, a suitable transmitter and a data analytics package."
The sensor is made by Suunto, another Finnish company, which makes sports watches and transmitters for these kinds of sensors. After the data is collected and transmitted to your phone, the numbers are crunched by software from FirstBeat, a data analytics company that takes information such as heart-rate data and turns it into something meaningful for consumers to understand. By teaming up with these companies, Jabil and Clothing+ aim to offer a one-stop-shop to clothing brands that want to make smart garments.
"They can put all that together very quickly," says Dargan, "and what we do with them is, we customise it. Everybody wants it customised so it fits in with their style and brand design, it can have their branding on it and it can fit in with their look and feel.
"The data analytics in the app can be customised with their name and their branding on it. They can choose what data they want to present to their customers and they get to choose how they market to customers, how they run promotions. We have all those services linked up, so they can sit down with us and we can get that to you in less than six months. We work really close with their suppliers to integrate sensors into their products so the brand is still using their own supply chain. It's a very fast move to market."
Clothing+ is backed by industry giant Jabil. Founded in 1966 and best known for manufacturing electronics, Jabil is a manufacturing services business based in St Petersburg, Florida. Investigating the potential of smart clothing prompted Jabil to buy Clothing+ in June and help it scale up. In 2016 it will open a new manufacturing facility in China and a new development centre in Florida where engineers can support American brands interested in adopting this kind of technology.
Dargan points out that each item of smart clothing faces various challenges. "In the fitness world you're going to sweat so you've got to be able to wash it. It's a sensor that's on skin, and if you're working out you're going to be moving around, so maintaining accuracy is a major challenge. It has to be invisible, it has to be very low cost to go to mass market appeal, and it has to be durable."
As consumers, the most visible smart devices and garments appear in the realm of fitness. But Dargan believes this is just the first potential market. "We see the volume in the consumer apparel market," he says, "but the real value is going to be in healthcare markets, where you're going to integrate sensors into garments which patients will wear around the house that send data to their doctor. It prevents them having to go in to have blood pressure taken, to have heart rate done, a number of the simple things that take up time and money that we believe can be done remotely."
Collecting data is one thing. The key thing is how that data is used. "Analytics are particularly important," says Dargan. "Telling you that your heart's been at 150 for 20 minutes is good information, but it's not really meaningful in terms of what it means for your overall fitness. We're able to provide information that would tell a person that for their age group they might be in the upper quartile of health and fitness, or their likelihood of developing a chronic disease like diabetes."
To build that meaningful data, Dargan believes people will embrace sensors in everyday clothing, not just active wear. "You go to the gym, you do your workout, and you get a bunch of data. You might be in the gym for an hour, an hour and a half. That's meaningful data," he says. "But if these sensors are small enough, and invisible and comfortable and durable, a person could have these sensors and be recording information for 10 hours. That information is more meaningful because you're not just interested in how your workout went, you're interested in what your recovery was, what your rest period was. Your heart rate and your biometrics can identify all sorts of stress-related issues that you have during the day. There's a host of information that can be had and the longer you wear the sensor the more meaningful the data."
And it's not just sensors that could be built into the clothes you buy. "The key area now is sensing and biometrics," says Dargan, "but we're also involved in things like haptic touch, where you can use your garment as a control device. We're dabbling in thermal activity for heating and cooling, and also light, which has some medical applications for things like treating jaundice in infants."