Wired for WEAR (or Much Ado About E-Textiles)

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By J. Michael Quante, AATCC Staff

Getting Past the Hype

We’ve seen it all before. The big hype, followed by the big letdown. It’s hard not to be a bit cynical about the future of e-textiles. Apart from the flashy, full body celebrity light showsWEAR3 and major sports team performance enhancement wear everyone talks about, there are few actual consumer e-textile products on the market. This begs the questions “What does/will this technology offer that will appeal to the average consumer?” and “Why buy an entire garment when a simple wearable on a single body location (e.g., the wrist) does the job?”

Tough questions. Yet, glimpses of the potential e-textile future become clearer over time as the technology begins to emerge from prototypes to usable products. These questions came to mind when I look back on the presentations at the May 2016 WEAR Conference in Boston, MA, USA.

Promises

Attending WEAR gave me a better appreciation for the great promises that e-textile development holds for improving our overall health and well-being. These benefits were (and will be) primarily in three areas: healthcare/wellness monitoring/intervention, augmentation for the physically impaired (including prosthetics), and enhancing personal self-expression. A fourth area, e-textiles for first responders, was noticeably absent from the agenda—this segment should be included in future WEARs, as there is a great need for these types of garments.

E-textile developments in the health and wellbeing sector were sparsely present at this WEAR5year’s WEAR, indicating their nascent status in the marketplace. Presentations primarily focused on the continued R&D going into wearable devices, with some exciting new health monitoring breakthroughs, like the Embrace “watch” for epileptic seizure monitoring. One exhibitor at the show, Xenoma, displayed their e-skin shirts that “can monitor our motion, breathing, body temperature, and other functions utilizing multi-sensors embedded in an article of clothing.” According to Xenoma, e-skin is “based on novel stretchable electronics technologies, is machine washable, and is robust enough to wear just like a normal shirt.” Stéphane Marceau of OMsignal pointed out a key advantage of e-textiles over simple wearables: you get clearer biosignals when the whole body is the sensor. As technologies for soft sensors, flexible electronics, and hidden, integrated electronic components are rapidly evolving, expect great changes in this sector soon!

Technologies to augment and improve human physical performance are an extremely active area of product development where e-textiles can play a major role. Textile materials and their composites can offer flexibility and fit potential that metal, plastics, or ceramics alone can’t always offer. Prosthetics involve larger portions of the human body that can be encompassed by e-textiles and their conductive capabilities to help control WEAR2function. Hugh Herr of the MIT Media Lab, pointed out the critical importance of comfort in prostheses, a realm that textile-based materials excel in. Look for e-textile integration into prosthetics and implantables in the near future.

Enhancing the senses using e-textiles continues its amazing mission of enhancing human consciousness and abilities. CuteCircuit has led the way in these developments since 2002. Starting with the Hug Shirt, touted as the “world’s first haptic telecommunication wearable,” CuteCircuit has been actively engaged in expanding the range of human senses in their garments, some of which are available commercially. An exciting new development is the Sound Shirt, that uses actuators throughout the garment to transform sound into a haptic experience, allowing the deaf to “feel” the music. Note the use of actuators, not sensors, in the Sound Shirt. Increasingly, integration of actuators into e-textiles will provide the human body with an increasing array of new sensory input, leading to various novel modes of responding to the environment around us.

Technology engages fashion when e-textiles become a vehicle to enhance personal self-expression. Fashion designers are teaming with scientists and engineers to create WEAR4garments that can sense and communicate with people and other garments in varying ways. CuteCircuit is one pioneer in this area. Other fashion designers and incubators are also working to bring e-textile clothing excitement to market. One is Manufacture NY, an incubator for innovative fashion startups. Amanda Parkes, Chief of Technology & Research at Manufacture NY, is tackling the supply chain challenges of integrating 21st century technology into a 20th century industry. She sees e-textiles leading to “the quantified self.” But whiz bang technology itself is not the key to fashion success. “In fashion, emotion is the killer app,” says Parkes.

Another designer tackling e-textile fashion is Liza Kindred of Third Wave Fashion, an interface between fashion and technology makers. Read Kindred’s take on WEAR on the Third Wave Fashion website. Kindred proposed a list of 11 principles for building wearable tech:

1) Less novelty (more on problems that matter)
2) Create utility or joy
3) Build on standards
4) Be open, future proof (upgradable, no prototypes as products, no PR without reality)
5) Design for context
6) Provide security
7) Build for humans
8) Fashion (passion, emotion, identity) meet tech (to work, must disappear)
9) Build to last
10) Narrow the digital divide (for developing world)
11) Make something the world needs

What the Future Holds…

Many practical challenges lie ahead before affordable consumer e-textile products enter the market. Having a supply chain that can integrate new technologies and operate effectively is perhaps the biggest challenge. Laundering is another.

As for the hype surrounding e-textiles and wearables, that phase is ending. According to Gartner’s 2015 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies, wearables are on the downside of the hype curve. After some of the glitter has worn off, we will begin to see the potential build for e-textile products that matter. This future is indeed a bright one!

Opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author and not necessarily those of AATCC.