Wearable electronics like headphones and watches have long been a common inclusion in many an active person's tech cache. Such devices roll the function of electronics into a comfortable, ergonomic package that can travel far distances at fast speeds. The next generation of wearable electronics will become even more wearable and functional, shedding some of the bulky casing and integrating directly into clothing. From smart socks to hot jackets, the future of technology is molding itself around your body.
The fitness monitor market is currently booming. Market research firm ABI estimates that 61 percent of wearable technologies are sports/activity trackers and predicts that the GPS fitness watch market will grow by 50 percent during the course of this year. Devices like GPS navigation+fitness watches, performance-tracking smartphone apps, MP3 watches and virtual coaches continue to shower the market each season.
As convenient, functional and popular as fitness monitors are, they may soon face partial or complete obsoletion. Current generation fitness monitors are largely standalone, single-purpose devices and some can get quite bulky. We're currently testing a Suunto Ambit, and while it packs a ton of useful features, it isn't the most comfortable thing to carry on the wrist. One solution is to integrate fitness monitoring functions directly into the clothing you're already wearing. Would you really wear a wrist computer if you could get the same fitness tracking abilities from a lightweight, moisture-wicking polyester shirt?
We've seen some forms of wearable-technology apparel, such as intelligent T-shirts and smart bras. The recent Wearable Technologies conference and Innovation World Cup in Munich gave us a closer look at some of other budding projects in the wearable technologies space. Let's just say that in a time not too far away, it will be possible to dress yourself from head to toe in wearable electronics.
Sensoria Fitness smart socks
On its face, running is one of the simplest sporting activities out there. But even in this innate form of fitness, there lies much debate and controversy over proper technique. This debate has received much attention over the past half-decade thanks to the popularization of the barefoot movement.
Heapsylon, the company behind Sensoria Fitness socks, brings its own numbers to the runner's technique debate, estimating that 70 percent of the 25 million runners in the United States suffer from foot problems and 60 percent suffer some type of injury each year.
Sensoria's smart socks, which have been under development for two years and recently reached the prototype stage, rely on sensor-equipped textile materials coupled with an attachable activity tracker. The sensors in the socks track traditional data about how many steps you've taken, your speed and your distance, but they also provide data about your running form and technique. Specifically, they keep tabs on your weight distribution and the form of your foot during standing, walking and running. In other words, they're a pair of socks that could potentially replace multiple devices, including pedometers and GPS fitness trackers, while offering new insight into proper technique.
The Sensoria tracker stores the data and allows for wireless upload to a home computer and real-time uploading to a smartphone. Once uploaded, the user can analyze the data. A sample screen on Sensoria's website shows a variety of information organized onto a single screen, including a step counter, an analysis indicating overpronation and a sleep tracker. In the field, the Sensoria sock system includes a virtual coaching feature for helping to maximize the efficacy of each workout.
The Fraunhofer research organization is no stranger to the concept of wearable technology, and its Institute for Integrated Circuits IIS is working on a sport shirt that monitors health and fitness and syncs wirelessly with a smartphone. The FitnessSHIRT includes textile electrodes – conductive portions of fabric – that pick up electrical activity from the cardiac muscle, as well as an elastic band around the chest that measures breathing. The shirt tracks both medical and performance measures, including heart rate, respiratory activity, arterial oxygen saturation, posture and movement. An electronic unit snaps into the shirt for monitoring and removes easily for washing. The unit houses the battery, stores data and provides for wireless transmission.
Fraunhofer is hoping to secure additional research and manufacturing partners for the FitnessSHIRT's development, production and marketing. It says that the shirt's capabilities and settings can be adjusted around individual client needs. The device is not yet approved as a medical device, but Fraunhofer envisions it being useful for medical tracking and care of high-risk populations (e.g. those with heart conditions), monitoring emergency responders' vital signs in dangerous environments, fitness tracking, and use in biofeedback therapy and stress management.
Heatex heat-generating textile
Electrically heated clothing has been around for ages and is no stranger to the pages of Gizmag. In recent years, it's made a strong move from the likes of Brookstone and Sky Mall to large apparel manufacturers like Columbia. Electrically heated garments can help to keep folks warm in frigid weather, but they can also be heavy, uncomfortable and dangerous – burn-related recalls have forced some manufacturers to reconsider their offerings.
South Korea's Kolon Glotech, Inc. has what could be the underpinnings of a new generation of heated clothing. It calls its Heatex technology the world's first heat-generating textile. Instead of simply relying on heating wires routed through the fabric or removable heating elements, Heatex fabric uses a conductive polymer to create the the heat itself. The fabric heats uniformly rather than creating hot spots like other heated clothing designs and should prove more comfortable thanks to the elimination of the electrical "skeleton" – the fabric is pliable, so will presumably look and feel like a normal piece of clothing.
Kolon also says that the technology does not add any appreciable weight to the fabric, meaning that it will be lighter than competitive systems. Because the fabric is water and wind-proof, it can serves as both the outer layer and heating unit.
Kolon's long-life lithium-polymer battery provides up to seven hours of warmth while adding eight ounces (230 grams) to the jacket. A smaller, 3.5-ounce (100-gram) battery pack offers half the run time. The fabric will not lose its heating properties when washed.
Another element of Heatex fabric that makes it a bit techier than the average heated garment is the smartphone temperature control app. In addition to a hard remote control, a smartphone app can be used to switch between high (~ 122ºF/50ºC), medium (~ 113ºF/45ºC) and low (~ 104ºF/40ºC) heat. The app also includes GPS tracking, routing and emergency location forwarding, adding some extra functionality for the outdoor users likely to be wearing Heatex garments.
In addition to heated clothing, Kolon Glotech believes Heatex offers benefits for automotive interior design (e.g. heated seats), therapeutic wraps and other markets.
AiQ BioMan Fabric
BioMan Fabric from Taiwanese smart clothing company AiQ is similar to Fraunhofer's FitnessSHIRT in concept and design. The unassuming, low profile jersey pictured is made from a conductive fabric sewn together from stainless steel yarns. It monitors vital signs, such as heart rate, respiration rate and skin temperature, and with integrated Bluetooth connectivity, sends that information to a smartphone for analysis.
In addition to BioMan, AiQ offers a variety of other smart clothing textiles. Its NeonMan line uses LED strands and buttons, along with small, integrated battery packs, to enhance the wearer's nighttime visibility. Its ShieldMan fabric uses a metal mesh construction that allows for casual clothing that shields the wearer from electromagnetic radiation.
T.Ware hugging jacket
Similar to the "Like a Hug" and Squease Vest, the T.Jacket from Singaporean company T.Ware delivers the deep pressure of a hug. The accompanying smartphone app allows a parent, teacher or guardian to give "a hug" from anywhere, and integrated airbags in the vest simulate it. The jacket allows for varying levels of pressure to be applied to different parts of the body, creating a more personalized form of remote physical interaction. The app also allows the parent to track the location and activities of the child using the T.Jacket.
The T.Jacket was designed specifically for children with sensory processing issues, including those with autism spectrum disorder and ADHD. It is available for pre-order at an introductory price of US$399.
We see a future where athletes and everyday folks may start to resemble functional cyborgs with wired clothing all over their bodies. Consider this head-to-toe outfit: The O-Synce screen eye x visor sits atop the head while a smart shirt and socks cover the torso and feet. Throw in a Danfoss PolyPower arm wrap, smart underwear and a pair of GPS shoes and your body is carrying more technology than Radio Shack.