No industry is more fickle than fashion. Apparel manufacturers spend millions every year trying to anticipate the next big craze, which is ironic when you consider that our fundamental demands for clothing have changed little over the course of four hundred millennia. Whether we’re wearing a grass skirt or $500 blue jeans, we like a bit of protection from the elements, a feeling of warmth and security, and to make an impression. In the future, the hottest fashion trend may be clothing that fulfills those most basic needs a little better, or, if you will, more intelligently.
One day not too long from now, we’ll be pulling self-heating raincoats over suits that monitor our respiration and breathing. We’ll go clubbing in chameleonlike colorchanging jeans and T-shirts that give off a different odor depending on whether we’re chatting up somebody we like or being hit on by some leisure-suited reptile. We won’t go to cybercafes to seek out the Internet, we’ll bring it with us like a second skin. And when we finally put our heads down for the night, our jammies will wake us up if we start to snore too loudly.
These are a few of the innovations we can expect from the emerging field of smart fabrics and intelligent textiles (SFIT), according to the inventors, designers, and venture capitalists participating in the recent Smart Fabrics 2007 trade show in Washington, D.C.
Garment makers like Nike, Rosner, and others have already debuted communications-enhanced clothing, according to Tim Shea, project manager for the Venture Development Corporation (www.vdc-corp.com). In the future, Shea sees wider implementation of already existing technologies like GPS and heart monitors in sporting gear for serious runners and hikers. Color-changing dresses, smart purses or bags, or accessories like jewelry that use fiberoptic technology will become more common.
“In 2008, the market should see a shift from novelty-based applications to real commercial applications, both providing viable alternative lighting sources and offering personal and public safety as a marketing element,” says Shea. Right now, the biggest sellers in SFIT are car and bus seat coverings that can heat or cool. Military apparel, which Shea says he finds the most interesting, is a close second.
“I think that this technology will one day not only enhance [soldier] survivability but also give soldiers a situational awareness of a battlefield that’s over the next horizon [through] sensing arrays and wireless communications to identify friend/foe,” says Shea. “That will increase the lethality of our troops versus those that do not have that type of technology-an obvious competitive advantage.”
Other attendees at the Smart Fabrics show imagine enhanced clothing performing more mundane tasks. Jenny Tillotson has pioneered a new field she calls “Scentsory Design” (smartsecondskin.com/main/scentsorydesign.htm.) She’s created a fluidic fabric system that releases atomized bursts of fragrance based on the presence of external factors like sweat or heat. She says her objective is to “change the experience of fragrance to a more intimate communication of identity by combining emerging technology such as micro-electro-mechanical systems, sensors, etc., with the ancient art of perfumery.” Her current research involves a wearable system that releases bursts of aroma based on the presence of subtle, external factors such as an increased heart rate, or even a certain type of music. For instance, a blouse might emit a different perfume depending on whether the weare r was listening to Beethoven or Beyoncé.
Before these and other concepts can really penetrate the apparel marketplace, designers and manufacturers must meet challenges like platform compatibility. According to Stacey Burr of Textronics (www .textronicsinc.com), “The most important breakthrough required for the development and advancement of electronic textiles is standardization and getting the technology in modular form so that it’s plug and play and can be easily integrated into wearable systems at low cost.”
Tim Shea sees battery power as the primary obstacle to smart fabric technology reaching its full potential. “I would focus my efforts and dollars in battery technology because it’s a need that exists across the board, especially for integrating electronics into fabrics,” he says. “You’re going to need some kind of a power source to be able to carry a signal or actuate or anything like that.”
Shea’s firm has looked at lithium polymer and flexible batteries as possible solutions. Another potential fix is solar thin film. In March 2007, the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory awarded United Solar Ovonic (www.uni-solar.com) a $9.1 million grant to perfect “ultra lightweight solar arrays on thin stainless steel foils” to power satellites. Some members of the SFIT community hope that the foil will one day be manufactured thin enough to wear, thus providing smart apparel with a 1,000 watt per kilogram power source.
“There’s [also] talk about fuel cells,” Shea notes, “but who would want to walk around with a hydrogen fuel cell on them, what with the potential explosiveness?”
Industry watchers like Adrian Wilson, editor of the Smart Textiles and Nanotechnology newsletter, think that SFIT could revitalize the textiles industry in the United States and western Europe, where low-cost competition from elsewhere around the globe has forced textile companies to lay off workers.
He may be right. Whether or not fluidic fabric or potentially explosive evening wear catches the interest of Paris, with a $400 million market for SFIT reportedly already in place and growing, there’s reason to believe that fashion is going to get a lot smarter in the next few years.
Originally published in THE FUTURIST, September-October 2007.