Wonderful things happen when wearable tech and smart clothing collide


When you think of wearable technology, you might think of fitness bands like the Jawbone UP3 and smartwatches like the Basis Peak. There are wilder and more experimental gadgets that fall into this category too — smart Bluetooth rings and activity tracking pendants, Google Glass-style eyewear and heart monitoring headphones.

1 in 3 think that current wearable tech makes you look ridiculous

Good as some of these products are, they are just the start of the wearable tech revolution. We’ve now reached a tipping point in the wearables market. On the one side, we have technology companies trying to build more fashionable devices. While on the other, we see some fashion designers starting to incorporate technology into futuristic ‘smart’ clothing.

“Wearables are commanding a huge amount of coverage and rightly so,” says Matt Drinkwater, Head of the Fashion Innovation Agency at London College of Fashion. “Fashion’s involvement in this space will be critical for their success. I read a recent survey that suggested that 1 in 3 think that wearable tech makes you look ridiculous. So there is clearly still a long way to go.

CuteCircuit K-Dress
The CuteCircuit K-Dress is a subtle blend of high fashion and high technology — silk chiffon, taffeta and hundreds of embedded LED lights.

“The Apple Watch launch has gone a long way to tackling that problem though and has been extremely important in challenging perspectives of wearables. I think there is recognition that these are very early days for wearables, but we are at the start of a revolution. The opportunities for brands, designers, retailers, coders and engineers are huge and the world is looking at how they can navigate through these opportunities.”

We are at the start of a wearables revolution

As these innovators experiment with form and function, we’ve already seen some intriguing projects. CuteCircuit’s £2,500 K-Dress, for example, is a hand-pleated silk chiffon dress incorporating hundreds of Micro-LEDs, while hopes to change the footwear business by selliing 3D printed shoes that are custom made to fit your feet.

And then there’s the Spider Dress

Created by pioneering ‘fashiontech’ designer Anouk Wipprecht in collaboration with Philip H. Wilck of Studio Palermo and the New Devices Group at Intel, the Spider Dress incorporates six animatronic limbs that flex autonomously based on the proximity of other people.

“When approached at an aggressive pace, the system answers in a territorial attack mode,” Wipprecht says of the dress, which is powered by an Intel Edison board and inspired by a video game. “But when you walk up to the dress in a more cautious, friendly symbiotic way, you can almost get the dress to invite you closer, as if to ‘dance’ with you.”

The Dutch designer is well-known for such daring combinations of high fashion and high technology. They include the brainwave-monitoring Synapse dress, the mist-puffing Smoke Dress and various 3D printed outfits for Cirque du Soleil.

“Often you see electronic fashion that only bleeps and blinks,” says Wipprecht. “I like to think of creating intelligent agents that live with us, on the notion of extremes, in the hope we can find new ways of interfacing with the world around us.”

Anouk Wipprecht's Synapse dress
Anouk Wipprecht’s Intel Edison-powered, 3D-printed Synapse dress displays light patterns according to your mood.
The Richard Nicoll/Studio XO Tinkerbell dress
Designer Richard Nicoll made this fibreoptic-enhanced Tinkerbell dress in collaboration with London fashion lab, Studio XO. Credit: Fashion Innovation Agency.

“The Spider Dress has gained enormous attention and was always going to be a piece that divides opinion,” suggests Matt Drinkwater. While he admits to being impressed by Wipprecht’s creation, he knows that the future of electronic fashion will be much more understated.

“Take a look at the Richard Nicoll / Studio XO Tinkerbell dress that I worked on,” he says. “That showed the fashion industry how tech can be used to make something truly beautiful.”

There seem to be two main approaches to fashion technology

In the short term, at least, there seem to be two main approaches to fashion technology. The first is to embed hardware into clothes — LED lights, solar panels (for charging your mobile phone), sensors, activity trackers and soft Bluetooth buttons (for controlling music playback via your sleeve).

Companies like OMsignal and Hexoskin are already creating fabrics that incorporate computing technology. Why wear a fitness band when you can pull on a smart shirt that can monitor your activity/wellness and squirt the data wirelessly to a companion app?

OMsignal Biometric Smartwear
Using OMsignal’s biometric smartwear, sensors can your shirt can monitor your heart rate, track your breathing. measure activity and count calories.

The second approach is using technology to produce the clothes themselves. The availability of 3D printers and cameras (like Intel’s RealSense system) will ultimately allow people to get themselves digitally measured and scanned so that stores can provide clothes that are customised and personalised for every shopper.

Again, this idea isn’t as futuristic as you might think.

“Last fall, United Nude presented a limited-time 3D printing in-store experience,” writes Marley Kaplan in the article 3D Printed Clothing Moves from Novelty to Mainstream Fashion. “In partnership with 3D systems, United Nude created the ‘Float’ shoe, where the customer got involved using an interactive touchscreen connected to four Cube 3D printers.”

United Nude 3D printed Float Shoe
United Nude created the ‘Float’ shoe, which could be sized, personalised and 3D printed in-store.

So where does fashion technology go from here? Are the catwalks going to be full of gaudy LED-lit dresses or will 3D printing and conductive yarns define a new era for fashion wearables?

“Both of those will play a part,” says Matt Drinkwater. “We are working on projects with smart materials — think of clothes with technology embedded, woven in, completely hidden. Consumers are going to expect more from their clothes in the future and when that happens, we will stop talking about ‘wearables’. It will be the norm that our clothes will have technology embedded into them.”

Anouk Wipprecht agrees. “The position that technology has in our society — the role to please us — will get more and more intimate. As technology crawls closer to the skin we will need to rethink and recreate the relation that we have towards technology.”

We can’t wait to see what she comes up with next. — Dean Evans (@evansdp)


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