For more than a decade now, a bright promise in fashion and apparel has loomed just over the horizon. Smart clothes with sensors and next-generation textiles could transform our wardrobes into health-tracking garments.
These ideas haven't just come from startups. Even companies like Levi's and Under Armour have floated the idea of jackets that offer touch control shortcuts and workout gear that would track your movement and vitals while you go about your day.
But these promises haven't quite turned into a successful reality. Though researchers have gotten better at weaving sensors and circuitry into clothes, smart textiles aren't as durable or waterproof as regular clothes and they need to constantly touch your skin to work. And there looms an even greater obstacle: With smartwatches recording all kinds of health data, there's not yet a use case that makes smart garments a better choice. The latest Apple Watch 7 can track your sleep and workout stats, monitor your heart rate for potential arrhythmias and watch for possible apnea, all on something you can wear every day.
Albert Titus, professor of biomedical engineering at the University at Buffalo, says that as devices like the Apple Watch have grown in popularity, they've preempted much of the need for smart clothing. "On my watch, I can measure my pulse rate," he said. "If I put on a shirt and it measures my pulse rate, why wouldn't I just wear a watch?"
Wearables you can wear…and not
There are a handful of smart garments on the market today, all of which are solutions to niche challenges. The Nadi X yoga pants use a clip-on sensor with vibrating haptics and paired app to nudge wearers into better form, while the Sensoria smart sock measures foot placement and cadence during runs.
LikeAGlove has slowly introduced more body-measuring undergarments since it launched in 2014, and the ProGlove is a wearable scanner for warehouse workers to scan products more efficiently. And the technology isn't just for adults either. The fits snugly around a baby's foot to monitor sleep statistics.
So far, though, bigger names have had less success. A smart version of Levi's Commuter jean jacket announced in 2015 used circuits from Google's Project Jacquard to let wearers control their music with taps and swipes. It was neat, but Levi didn't follow up with a more advanced version.
Google's Advanced Technology and Projects group, which developed Jacquard, has promoted a different endeavor on its own: partnering with researchers at UC San Francisco to explore whether off-the-shelf wearables and AI algorithms can measure body movements as accurately as motion tracking used in labs. But aside from a handful of one-time runway collaborations based on Jacquard tech, Google hasn't announced any smart clothing projects as momentous as its Levi's partnership. (Google declined to comment for this article.)
Older technology has limited even the smart clothes you can buy now. Nadi's X yoga pants and the Sensoria smart sock use plastic sensor pods that attach to the outside of the garment, but they need to be removed to recharge. There's also limited (if any) smart functionality in the garments themselves, which serve more as anchors for the sensor pods.
Wearables need their killer app
Every announcement of a new smart clothing seems to end with the same wistfulness: When sensors line all of our clothes and track lots of data, we can glean insights and make positive changes to our health and fitness. But there are some big reasons why those promises remain elusive.
First, the sensors need to touch your skin to get any data. That makes sense for exercise gear and clothing worn in the medical field, but it means you probably won't ever get a smart blouse or dress shirt.
"[The sensors] need to be in contact with the body in a way that is stable and reliable," Titus said. "And that usually means something that is tight-fitting close to skin."
For the near future, Titus imagines smart clothing that would fix specific health issues for a set period. If someone was recovering from a knee replacement, for example, a smart knee brace could guide them through rehab exercises and correct their form until they healed. On a long term-basis, though, it's hard to imagine consumers wearing the same smart shirt or garment everyday rather than using a watch or fitness tracker.
Before they can find a 'killer app' that justifies wearing smart garments every day designers need to pinpoint problems that only the clothing can solve. "Unless you're solving a problem, smart clothing is going to trail further behind smartwatches and fitness trackers," said Ramon T. Llamas, research director at analyst firm IDC. "All these sensors will go for naught unless we're pointing to some sort of solution."
Llamas mentioned the Owlet smart sock for infants as one solution. He says that for around $299, parents could buy peace of mind that any sleep irregularity will be detected, hopefully before something dire like Sudden Infant Death Syndrome happens. Though pediatricians have questioned the accuracy of a smart sock to detect SIDS, its sensors provide a solution for a niche problem wrist wearables can't solve. (Owlet has stopped selling its smart sock in the US after the FDA reprimanded the company for selling a product that measures blood oxygen levels and pulse rate to diagnose medical issues without the agency's clearance.)
"It doesn't have to be a solution for everybody, but it has to be a solution," Llamas said.
But collecting more body readings than a smartwatch is one thing. The data also needs to be useful and scalable. Perhaps medical professionals will want a full feed of patient data outside the hospital, or military commanders will track soldier vitals out in the field, Titus theorized.
"There's some potential for a clothing-based wearable [to] gather more and different information than you can with just a watch," Titus said. "People are demonstrating that you can do this, but to ramp it up to make a thousand or 10,000 or 100,000 shirts, [we're] not necessarily there yet."
Garment materials need to catch up, too
Take a look at most smart garment concepts and you'll see prototype devices crudely stitched into regular clothes. It's a sign that textile science just isn't there yet, with many smart garment concepts failing to achieve the longevity and washability of normal clothes. And consumers have noticed. A survey published in the April 2021 issue of Applied Sciences found respondents resisted buying smart clothes because they were worried about performance, durability, and availability.
Most of the wearables on the market today are made of conventional materials like cotton or nylon but with circuits stitched in that carry signals from sensors to a receiver. The second type is made of specialty textiles that respond to stimuli, either by conducting electricity or reacting to differences in pressure or heat and sending those signals to receivers. Nike's AeroAdapt technology, which reacts to moisture (e.g. sweat) by clustering fabric to open up gaps for air ventilation, is one of few current examples.
Still, researchers are exploring the potential for reactive garments, and are imagining problems wrist wearables couldn't solve. The report Smart textiles: A toolkit to fashion the future appearing in the April 2021 issue of the Journal of Applied Physics lists potential features a smart garment might have and the textiles that could make them real. They include self-repairing small tears, regulating heat and air flow, monitoring wounds and treating them, and even soft robotics to assist wearers in lifting or moving around.
The report also lays out the challenges that remain for smart textiles. Research collaborations involve a wide range of fields, from scientists, designers and technologists to artists, computer experts, electrical engineers and manufacturers. Only around 29% of smart textile researchers have backgrounds studying textiles, but 88% of research on the subject is published outside of textile journals. Involving textile experts to produce specialty garments at scale is just as important as finding new ways to use them.
Titus says partnerships between electronics and textiles experts are the next essential step for getting into applications of a new tech concept. He pointed to research of carbon nanotubes as an example.
"You've got people marching down [research] paths. Then they realize the need for [those paths] to intersect and then they come together and start working," Titus said. "You get the new stuff when you get that kind of cross-blending."
There are other ways to innovate production while materials science improves. Jim McCann, associate professor of the Robotics Lab at Carnegie Mellon University, started researching smart textiles when he realized the industry hadn't solved a more basic issue. It still needs to improve computer-assisted design and computer-assisted manufacturing tools for the textile-making machines so they can make fabrics at scale in a wide variety of custom three-dimensional shapes. The goal is clothes in more sizes to fit different bodies, or pre-shaping advanced fabrics like carbon fiber that typically need to be molded by hand.
Eventually, new design tools also could help machines spin out smart textiles. But McCann doubts there'd be much use for weaving a lot of sensors into clothes that turn your body into a touchpad, like the Jacquard Levi's jacket. Human skin can sense plenty already, but maybe we can form sensor-filled fabrics to fit around other kinds of body shapes -- like a robot's.
"It might make a lot of sense to have an entire robot arm be a touchpad because you really want to know if your robot arm is about to run into somebody," McCann said. "This ability to create flexible sensors could be really good for robotics."
Perhaps conductive, sensor-packed fabrics could be applied outside the clothes industry entirely, he mused. Or maybe they could replace electrical wiring inside a house or be used in modular buildings.
Progress is possible in how we make our textiles, too. Kornit, a maker of industrial printers that flexibly print pigmented ink on fabric, has a solution for alleviating current supply chain pressures on clothing shipments. It proposes taking smaller orders for custom garments and finding the closest production partner to fulfill the order. The company says the result would be less shipping, fewer bulk-order clothes left over after a fashion cycle and less waste.
Kornit can also print physical designs that act similar to QR codes. Viewable with a bespoke Kornit app, they link to online videos letting you, for example, watch an online video clip of a sports event you cherished. They aren't smart garments as we think of them now, but they're interacting with the digital world in a different way, and they're here today.
There are plenty of things left to figure out for smart wearables, including who has access and whether they'll be affordable enough for a person to fill an entire wardrobe. But those discussions will wait until we discover the role smart garments have in our lives. And for the moment, that's a question we still haven't answered.