GuestApril 21, 2023 AATCC Newsletter

What does Google’s April announcement of the closure of their Jacquard project mean about the future of e-textiles?

Google’s Jacquard technology (revealed in 2015) embedded touch sensors and haptic feedback into clothing that, when paired with a smartphone, allowed wearers — through gestures on the garments — to perform smartphone activities such as make and receive calls, take photos, or play music.

The 2017 launch of Levi’s Commuter Trucker Jacket (reported in AATCC Review Vol. 17, No. 6 November/December 2017 DOI: 10.14504/ar.17.6.3), was followed by the Samsonite Konnect-i Backpack, Saint Laurent’s Cit-e Backpack, and adidas GMR which connected soccer players with digital gaming.

While breathability and ease of movement challenges with e-textiles have improved, washability and affordability remain key concerns.


Lack of Traction

Courtesy of IDTechEX

E-textiles haven’t had much traction in the mass apparel market for the past five years because consumers prefer wearables, explains Matthew Dyson, principal technology analyst IDTechEx, a Cambridge, UK-based independent market research, business intelligence, and events consultancy focused on emerging technology. Dyson is also the co-author of the IDTechEx report, e-textiles and Smart Clothing Markets 2023-2033: Technologies, Players, and Applications.

In 2017, IDTechEx estimated that by 2027 the e-textile market would approach US$5 billion. In this new report, estimates are more conservative, predicting the market to exceed US$780 million by 2033. According to the report, venture capital funding peaked in 2019, with wellness and lifestyle, and healthcare and medical as the dominate sectors.

“It’s harder to convince people to spend a couple of hundred on a t-shirt that you can’t wash and will need more than one of, when one smartwatch or one fit bit can do the same thing with no washing,” he says.

A pair of smart socks aimed at improving a runner’s performance can cost as much as US$300, and t-shirts that monitor the same can cost as much as US$500.

Courtesy of IDTechEX









Healthcare Still Values E-Textiles

But when designed to provide feedback on health care, consumers and the medical industry are more likely to spend such sums, he adds.

“The foot is actually a great place to collect data about stress, and socks are a familiar piece of clothing that people wear every day,” explains Zeke Steer, the creator of SmartSocks which track heart rate, sweat levels, and motion to detect stress levels in people with dementia and autism, alerting caregivers before anxiety escalates. Wrist-worn alternatives have been found to stigmatize patients or cause more anxiety.

Steer is a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Health & Clinical Research at the University of the West of England, and the co-founder and CEO of Milbotix, the company behind Smart Socks. His doctoral research at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (UK) investigated how wearables, artificial intelligence, and robotics can support dementia caregivers to better manage distress and agitation—something he became passionate about after seeing his grandmother suffering with dementia.

Nearly three years in the making, the patent pending Smart Socks are scheduled to go to market this year. When paired with an app, the socks provide a steady stream of data to caregivers.

Smart shirts for detecting warning signs of cardiovascular disease, EMG-integrated trousers for athlete coaching, and smart insoles to identify warning signs of foot ulcers are other examples of garments that provide real-time medical diagnosis.

In Fall 2021, University of Utah chemical engineering assistant professor Huanan Zhang published a paper in the APL Materials Science Journal outlining the method he devised to turn cotton/polyester blend textiles into sensors that measure electrical impulses generated from muscle movement. The work has the potential to replace current bioelectrical sensor technology that requires the use of tape, sensors, and wires to the skin—uncomfortable for the patient and costly to produce.

Zhang’s process involves depositing a microscopic layer of silver—in a process similar to screen printing a graphic onto a t-shirt—over an area of fabric where it will be in contact with the muscle, making the material conductive and therefore able to receive electrical signals from the muscle. A second microscopic layer of gold is added to the silver, via an electro-chemical process, to protect the skin and enhance the electrical signal. These sensor patches are then attached to wires connected to an electromyography (EMG) device that measures muscle contractions.

“This new method can enable clinicians to collect a muscle’s long-term electrical signals with more precision,” says Zhang. “And we can get a better understanding of a patient’s progress and therefore their therapeutic outcomes over time.” A research trial of 15 washes did not affect the sensor’s efficacy, he reports.

Courtesy of Imperial College

Last September, scientists at Imperial College London announced the development of a cotton-based conductive thread called Pecotex. A meter of the thread costs US$0.15 to produce and can seamlessly integrate more than ten sensors into clothing, and is compatible with industry-standard computerized embroidery. The team of academics used the sensors to examine elements of the breath, like ammonia, to observe liver and kidney function.

According to Fahad Alshabouna, main research author and PhD candidate at Imperial’s Department of Bioengineering, “The flexible medium of clothing means our sensors have a wide range of applications. They’re also relatively easy to produce, which means we could scale-up manufacturing and usher in a new generation of wearables in clothing.”

AI Silk courtesy of AI Silk Corp. Used with permission.

Japan-based AI Silk Corp. has been turning silk into sensors since 2015. AI Silk are conductive fibers produced with a dyeing technique that gives conductive properties to natural silk. These electrodes reduce some of the risks and challenges of conventional medical electrodes, which can cause discomfort, skin and in vivo inflammation, and measurement failure due to other elements such as perspiration. The material that has strong and diverse application potential, including measuring vital data anytime without stress as well as providing electrical stimulation for efficient training and rehabilitation.


Therapeutic Stimulation

Dyson believes the therapeutic market, stimulating not just monitoring, is another sector for e-textiles. Apparel that stimulates muscles after child birth or surgery is one application.

Ireland-based Atlantic Therapeutics create professional and consumer medical devices, related software, and connected health technologies. Their FDA-approved Innovo shorts engage pelvic floor muscles to strengthen them to solve urinary incontinence. The starter kit retails around US$450.

Wearable X is an Australian-born, New York-based fashion technology company that launched Fundawear in 2013; vibrating underwear for couples in long distance relationships. In 2017 they launched Nadi X yoga pants.  Described as activated yoga apparel, the yoga pants partner with an app and stimulate the wearer to improve yoga poses. The e-texile yoga pants are available at US$279 or US$1,000 for 4 pairs, plus US$60 for the removable pulse.

The S+T+ARTS Program (science + technology + Arts), an initiative of the European Commission, launched Re-FREAM in 2020. Re- FREAM is a collaborative research project bringing together designers, artists, and scientists to re-imagine the fashion industry.

One of the prototypes that emerged is Touch (and staying in Touch). Inspired in response to social distancing, sweaters embroidered with conductive yarns and e-textile bonding technology allow wearers to communicate with each other through sound via touch or Bluetooth.


Occupational Safety

Monitoring the vitals of people who work around hazardous substances like nuclear and radioactive items or tracking the movement of soldiers for national security reasons are also emerging sectors for e-textiles.

The Mission Navigation Belt keeps soldiers’ hands, eyes, and ears free to focus on their mission while receiving navigation cues through haptic feedback.

The project was a collaboration between Elitac Wearables and The Netherlands Ministry of Defense, and commercialization partner Teijin Smart Safety.

Netherlands-based Elitac Wearables have been integrating e-textiles in products to improve safety in the workplace with a focus on haptic activators (vibration motors).

Their SmartShoulder is a waterproof smart safety vest for service engineers that features a panic button and integrated LED lights that automatically turn on in dimly lit environments.


At Home With E-Textiles

“Functionalizing your environment makes more sense than your apparel,” Dyson adds. “Household items are an easier win than apparel, because e-textiles add value to a high-end aspirational purchase that can be plugged in rather than battery operated, and doesn’t require washing.”

“People keep a sofa for 5-10 years,” Dyson explains. “My parents scrabble over the heating, but with e-textiles in the sofa they could each adjust their section. It’s easier to add the cost to the sofa and justify it, and you’re saving energy by heating where you sit rather than the entire room with traditional space heating.”

Dyson cites heated curtains, car seats, and solar tents as another example of home furnishings that can benefit from e-textiles, with conductors being printing directly onto fabric for heating rather than copper wires.

Courtesy of Tacototek. Used with permission.

Finland-based TactoTek turns conventional structures like walls, counters, and furniture, into smart, natural, and interactive surfaces by building in capacitive touch (it’s how smartphones work—the wires under the phone screen know the coordinates of your fingers without you being wired in).

But why not voice activation rather than capacitive touch?

“Not everyone likes voice activation,” Dyson said. “People don’t want to interrupt their conversation and say, ‘Hey sofa turn off the lights!’ A smart surface made of wood or leather will look natural with integrated electronics, rather than a remote control. The point is not to make your room look like the Star Ship Enterprise. We want the Nordic design and the functionality of  simply swiping and making heat happen or the curtains open, or the lights turn on or the channel on the television to change. Gesture-operated rather than buttons.”

Dyson says gloves with sensors for metaverse and gaming engagement are also emerging for computer gesture interaction.




Craig Crawford is a two time Tabbie award winning author and founderprenuer of Crawford IT,  a London-based consulting firm specializing in the digital transformation of brands; Twitter @getamobilelife; Instagram getamobilelife; +44 07834584785

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