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25 May 2018, 13:17

Invisible Wearables, we don’t need to see them!

Most wearables you come across these days are in the form of a wrist-worn device much like a watch or bangle, occasionally a belt worn item pops up, and generally all are targeted at the fitness end of the market, save for a few smartwatches, which although they can contain activity tracker apps are more of a fashion statement for the geeks and brand fans out there.

Whether manufacturers of all those wrist born wearables are willing to admit it or not, a wrist (or a waistline) isn’t exactly the prime location for a pile of sensors, and are those sensors actually ideal for monitoring activity anyway? One of the issues with smartwatches and bands is that everyone can see them, they have certainly changed from the huge lumps of plastic and rubber they used to be to become more svelte and streamlined. Appearance is one thing, but there are other considerations, such as does it need recharging or need batteries, is it accurate, do you have to think about it and remember to put it on every day, does it interface seamlessly with your mobile or tablet?

Making it invisible

If the desire for monitoring our activity and fitness levels (amongst other things) is to be more accurate and become more widely accepted the manufacturers need to look into making this technology invisible. Invisible might be a play on the word slightly but, essentially, those wrist born devices need to be absorbed into the clothing we wear every day, gone from view, but right there none-the-less.

It’s a fact of life (unless you are a Naturist) that you put your clothes on each morning, which is why smart clothing is the way forward. Pulling on your underwear, slipping on a T-shirt, a bra or your shoes requires zero additional effort on your part so there is no requirement for you to change your normal activities to suit the technology.

The concept of society fully embracing smart clothing has never really been more than a pipe dream for a few years now, recently though, brands such as Google, Levi Strauss and Ralph Lauren are attempting to embrace the invisible wearable concept (albeit to mixed reviews in some cases). As most wearables of late have been developed to monitor a person’s activity, thus the smart clothing created has been of a similar ilk, providing accurate fitness metrics and improved workout analysis.

Dressing Smart

Since you are (hopefully) normally dressed all the time, ensuring that the fabric that covers your body is digitally smart would make it easier for you to monitor your overall fitness levels without forcing you to go to the gym, or to wear something you don’t normally do. Being worn close to your body, smart clothing could help provide fitness tracking not just for the athletes amongst us, but for those perhaps less able. For example, people with various medical conditions could be monitored remotely, you could be alerted about an elderly relative who might have fallen as well as providing tracking locations for children. There is certainly a long list of potential applications for smart clothing when you begin to consider just how versatile this technology could be.

Google was mentioned earlier, they recently developed a conductive yarn that can be weaved into regular fabric and dyed to any colour, known as Jacquard. In tandem with Levi Strauss, they created a smart demi jacket known as the ‘Commuter’. Designed initially for the cyclist this smart jacket can keep track of your location, alert you to incoming phone calls via haptic feedback and help you navigate and so on.

Noble Biomaterials, an American based company, is another pioneer in the realms of smart fabric, their product called CircuiteX, according to them, ‘is the most conductive yet flexible technology available in the marketplace.’ Utilising a highly conductive yarn you could if you wanted too, etch an entire circuit board on to one piece of fabric creating a flexing circuit, which conforms to standard production processes like pick and place. Once constructed within a wearable, this fabric can be utilised to monitor breathing rate, heart rate, the force of impact, etc. the data being sent to a module that would collate the information and send that to a master device for interpretation.

Context Specific

Omsignal, based in Canada, is a name you will find mentioned in many smart clothing circles, although they don’t sell to the consumer, they list a broad range of ‘context-specific smart-wear’ capable of reading an array of biometric data which it sends to the cloud for further analysis. Omsignal, who class themselves as a technology platform, demonstrates an extensive background in the development of smart clothing and a read through their large collection of whitepapers showcases the extent of their impressive research and knowledge on this subject.

One thing seems to be apparent amongst all of the wearable clothing I have managed to find, and that is that they all still seem to have a ‘black box’, a USB stick-sized hub of some kind that is utilised to interface and capture and store the biometric data prior to that being fed to a processing system. In essence, the watch has moved to the clothing, however, there is a significant advantage in the gathering of the data via the use of fabric-based methodology over its wrist and belt wore predecessor, which is one plus.

Disappearing Hubs

The step-change will occur when those ‘hubs’ disappear, absorbed into the clothing, requiring no charging or batteries as the smart garment also powers the mechanisms at play and it also syncs seamlessly with the applications that harness the biometric data. If it hasn’t happened already, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before truly interface-free smart clothing appears in the marketplace and becomes more wildly accepted by the manufacturing communities at large.  This year many companies and businesses are taking part in the Virgin Pulse Global Challenge, a competition designed to help us all be a little more active, the tech of choice for this event is wrist-based, the question is, in the coming years will that tech disappear and become a collection of T-shirts or perhaps an arm sleeve to wear instead? The future is certainly bright for this technology, with a seemingly endless list of possibilities for a diverse range of applications in many sectors, I look forward to seeing what happens next with this fascinating tech.

 

If you want to read more about wearables and the technology, click here

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25 May 2018, 13:17