Smart, Connected Garments: A Future Interactive Medium and Technological Interface

Photo Credit: Project Jacquard

Smart garments could be a flash in the pan, an idea that is never able to fully manifest itself or reach its full potential. Or, in terms of Gartner’s Hype Cycle, smart garments may never reach the ‘Plateau of Productivity’ – the technological promise land. Smart garments, here, is taken to be a branch of wearable computing where wearable devices make up their own, separate branch. There are several hurdles that must be overcome in order for rapid innovation and adoption to occur in this area of wearable computing.

Neither the technology industry nor the fashion industry are leading the way in sustainable practices. The convergence of the two means a potential multiplication of unsustainable practices, which should not be fostered with development going forward.

Though not being sustainable may be the only thing the two industries have in common, as the inherent differences between the two have yet to be resolved from a developmental standpoint.

There would seem to be irreconcilable differences between engineers and designers, but really it seems to be reducible to a lack of understanding and openness from either side. Of course, there is one thing that technology cannot capture that garments encapsulate – and that is creativity. It appears to be the reason fashion can, and has, eschewed technology.

However, that does not mean that there are no benefits to integrating technology into garments in order to make them ‘smarter’ – as it is generally forgotten that textiles and technology have a longstanding relationship. Technology, specifically the sensing and monitoring kind employed in IoT networks using WSNs and RFID, could bring versatile benefits to the apparel sector. Information collected from monitoring the way garments are worn could be fed back to manufacturers and designers in order to facilitate design for actual use, as opposed to intended use. Garments able to detect when they need to be laundered could alert a local dry cleaner who would then come pick up the clothes, knowing exactly how each is to be treated by simply scanning each item. Care instructions as well as the entire life of the garment could be stored electronically for easy access to information such as country of manufacture or previous owner if the item is vintage.

Photo Credit: Hypebeast, byBorre

Photo Credit: Hypebeast, byBorre

There are a multiplicity of functions a garment could take on, given the technology available for integration. Hardware components must get ‘softer’ if they are to merge seamlessly with garments though. The wearability of a garment must not be inhibited by the technology. Another issue is the concern over the proximity of the technology to our bodies. All current interaction with technology occurs consciously through a device, either a smartphone, laptop, tablet, etc.

As technology begins to seamlessly integrate with other things aside from technological devices, we will begin to unconsciously engage with it.

At this point in time we are unable to know what implication this will have – with each new technological innovation, users must spend time familiarising themselves with it at the onset.

This ‘unconscious engagement’ with technology integrated into garments raises cause for concern in the realm of privacy, and more specifically with data collection and usage. These are not new concerns surrounding the use of technology. Proprietors of the Web currently collect data and generate user profiles from this data based on individual use – even though users themselves are unable to see their own data profiles. This occurs with user consent but there is a large degree of opacity concerning data and its usage. This data asymmetry between users and companies may only be exacerbated as we not only continue to constantly carry technology around with us, but also adorn ourselves with it. Continuous, unconscious engagement with technology will generate a wealth of individual user data – and presumably data of a very personal nature due to sheer proximity.

Smart garments do have the potential to empower users with their data though. The traditional Web model of offering free services in exchange for user data begins to shift when users actually own the item generating the data. Due to the fact that users could be monitored without their knowledge when technology is ‘on-the-body’, users should be given the choice to consciously engage with companies in data exchange. They should be able to dictate the terms of data use, exactly what is used and for what purpose. Data usage should be transparent and users should be able to access and view their data as it is being used by companies – complete ownership of data should fall with the individual user. Smart garments, and smart objects in general, have the potential to allow users to take control of their data and also to raise general awareness about data. This shift will also prompt companies to build more services around individual users and their needs, as opposed to selling their data to advertising companies.

Current Map of Wearable Landscape, Source: Author’s own

Current Map of Wearable Landscape, Source: Author’s own

The current map of the wearable landscape above shows examples of different types of wearables, both garments and devices. The examples are mapped by degree of wearability, which is an average of five characteristics: tactility, durability, washability, pliability and resilience, and then placed according to where they fall on the range of functionality, which goes from expressive to constructive. Most of the examples fall within a lower degree of wearability signifying that there is still development with the integration of electronics, especially concerning the laundering of garments. At this stage there is development, but it remains relatively isolated by respective industries or only exists in a lab setting.

As things move forward, smart, connected garments could open up the discussion about data and increase awareness by putting data in the hands of the users generating it.

This, coupled with increased proximity to technology may bring about a new conception of privacy in the digital age and smart, connected garments may even lend themselves to helping individuals regain their privacy by functioning as a digital shield. There are promising possibilities to be realised through a smart, connected wardrobe.

Photo Credit: Project Jacquard

Photo Credit: Project Jacquard

Concerning our physical proximity to technology, as it gets closer to us and we become more intertwined with it, it is only natural that we begin to move away from technology as ‘magic’ and begin to move towards not only knowing how to use technology but also understanding how it works. This will bring about a more informed individual user who is able to better use technology to his or her benefit due to an increased understanding of its functionality and capability. Individual users taking a more active stance regarding the use of technology and the control of data that comes with would ensure democratisation and lower the risk of infringement upon individual rights. Smart, connected garments have the potential to reconfigure the way in which users interact with the Internet as it becomes an immersive, seamless fabric woven into the physical world.

Katherine Gowin is a recent graduate of the MA Fashion Entrepreneurship & Innovation Programme at the London College of Fashion.