Impact Analysis: Smart Textiles

Analysis by Jaimy Szymanski, Jeremiah Owyang, Jessica Groopman, and Rebecca Lieb
Photo Credit: ExtremeTech

With the advent of “smart textiles,” humans are getting one step closer to self-healing as biometric monitoring and triggered adjustments become increasingly invisible. Say goodbye to clipping on additional wearable accessories that collect data without also enabling helpful solutions to common problems like muscle pain, temperature drops, or fatigue. Via sensors woven directly into clothing, smart textiles––also known as “smart fabrics,” among myriad similar terms––are able to not only track user data but also communicate with other embedded electronics to regulate and mitigate potential health risks.

In this post, we’ll explore the healthcare and personal fitness use cases of smart textiles, as well as how other industries are utilizing electronics-laden fabrics to empower and support everyone from soldiers, to fashion designers, to casual shoppers, to on-the-go businesspeople.

Kaleido Insights’ methodology for analyzing emerging technology assesses the impacts on humans, on businesses, and on the ecosystem. As part of our ongoing coverage, we’ll be covering a series of topics using our methodology to help business leaders first understand, and then see beyond the bright and shiny and cut right to what matters.

In each post, all Kaleido Insights analysts conduct a joint analysis session around one topic (e.g. technology, event, announcement, etc.). In this post, we analyze the human impacts of smart textiles (see partial framework, at right).

Topic: Smart Textiles / Smart Fabrics / Smart Clothing / Electronic Garments / E-textiles

Examples: Nadi X yoga pants; Polar Team Pro shirt; SUPA Powered Sports Bra; Lumo Run; Owlet Smart Sock; Levi’s and Google Jacquard; Rogartis and Samsung Smart Suit

Impact Analysis: Human Impacts

User Attitudes & Psychology

Similarly to other wearables technology, user attitudes toward smart textiles will be reticent at first, until concrete use cases are established for the clothing that brings tangible value to the wearer. User attitudes will also turn more positive as the design elements of smart textiles mature to more closely mirror normal clothing in both style and comfort.

Issues around secure management of data collected by smart textiles will also be at the forefront of adoption challenges. Imagine using a smart textile T-shirt to monitor your health, the data is hacked or spoofed, resulting in a misdiagnosis or prescribing the wrong medication to cure your ailment. There may be an initial backlash against smart textiles until data security standards are guaranteed, with an uprising of support for “dumb” clothes. We also expect price to be an initial deterrent to mainstream adoption in initial applications.

User Behavior & Adoption

The “smart clothing” category makes up just 2 percent of wearables’ market share (see most recent forecasting from IDC, below). Early technology adopters are likely testers of these new smart textiles, as well as niche markets like athletes, artists, and military applications. Google has developed a smart jacket in partnership with Levi’s in an attempt to push the wearables category into the mainstream (see Jacquard sleeve wearable embed, image right). In the fitness market, Adidas, Nike, and Under Armour have been investing heavily in fitness mobile application companies in the past year, signaling further adoption of smart textile solutions in the future. Other companies driving developments include BASF, DuPont, Intel, Philips, and Ralph Lauren.

User Interface

The user interface for smart textiles is typically built directly into the fabric itself, incorporating mechanical, thermal, magnetic, chemical, and/or electrical sensing and distribution technologies to monitor stimuli, collect data, and––sometimes––perform an action. Consumers will not have to manage hardware or software solutions and updates, as they’re part of the smart clothing. Many smart textiles are also incorporating BLE to sense and send data when connected to wifi.

With interfaces built into the clothing on our backs, we’ll see less waste in electronics. There’s no need for a separate wearable wristband, smart watch, or other medical device to track biometrics if your socks do it automatically. As companies experiment in R&D with making smart textiles and conductive yarns more breathable, comfortable, and fashionable, people will be more willing to trade up their sensor-less clothing. One result of this shift: less need for being tethered to mobile phones if clothing can serve similar or identical functionality with a smoother, more seamless UX. See the Rogartis and Samsung Smart Suit below, with smartphone features built directly into the sport coat’s interior via an embedded NFC chip.

Use Cases

Military, sports, and medical applications of smart textiles are leading the charge in useful applications, though other use cases are emerging that also offer promise to spur interest and experimentation among those seeking other efficiencies:

  • Military and defense: Smart textiles used to give soldiers a superhuman boost via automatic muscle compression to ease pain or increase speed under certain biometric conditions; reduced wind resistance; and trapping or releasing heat to react to temperature shifts.
  • Sports athletes and fitness: Similar functionality as the military and defense uses above, as well as performance enhancing muscle vibration technology, releasing topical analgesics or moisturizers, and tracking movements/plays via GPS embeds.
  • Healthcare: Release of medications through textiles. Preventing and detecting early warning signs of disease or medical emergency through consistent biometric screening, analysis and alerts. These use cases apply both to professional medical settings and personal health monitoring. See potential applications of smart textiles in military, sports, and healthcare in the illustration below.
Image source: IDST
  • Transportation: Utilize smart fabrics on bus and train seats to monitor usage data and wear-and-tear. In personalized contexts, incorporate smart textiles into car seats to monitor driver attention, health, and other useful data in an autonomous environment.
  • Fashion: Smart textiles aren’t just for monitoring data; there’s an aesthetic component as well. Many smart fabrics have the ability to change colors and appearance, including luminesce, enticing the fashion industry’s creative designers. There’s also an inherent DIY market around sewing and fabrics, making this a ripe use case for maker adoption.
  • Recreation: A couple of recreational uses of this technology include solar-powered sailboat sails to increase efficiency, and the potential for clothing to release perfume, cologne, or other pheromones if bodily biometrics signal romantic attraction.
  • Safety: With GPS tracking technology directly embedded into clothing, we’ll see smart textiles being used to track children and senior family members, as well as personnel handling high-value or hazardous materials.

Risks and Challenges

One top challenge encountered by smart textile manufacturers and consumers alike is low durability, with prototypes sporting the ability to survive a mere 20 washes. Sensor-laden clothing is also less comfortable and less permeable than natural fabrics. Battery life can also be an issue, with energy harvesting via solar power and temperature a common solution to extend longevity. Manufacturers are also experimenting with new ways to increase charge storage capacity.

There are also the aforementioned privacy risk of all the data being collected through smart textiles and its processing and storage. This is especially true when considering the possibilities of connecting smart textiles to other products and services via the IoT. How will security be impacted in homes and organizations? Other consumer IoT wearables have had to surmount similar challenges in data security, as well as device interoperability and syncing/deleting data when devices change hands of ownership.

Impact on Experience

When your clothing can learn about you by constantly analyzing data over time, it has the potential to personalize your experiences to align with both your physical needs and your individual preferences. Those experiences are further personalized when smart textiles communicate with other often used smart products around the home, in vehicles, or at work. Smart fabrics also could be self-aware of when they need to be repaired or replaced, lending to new “clothing as a service” models for replacement or rental of smart fabric products.

Consider, too, the brand loyalty implications on consumers once their data is already in one company’s system. The hassle of switching smart textile brands and transferring (or losing) massive amounts of trend data over time must be worth it to your customer. We may even see new models of personal data management and stewardship emerge as a result of mainstream adoption of smart textiles.

Technology Proliferation

In order for smart textiles to take hold with consumers, the very materials that make up their “smart” components must first advance––from yarns, to polymers, to conductive inks. Today’s smart clothing is often uncomfortable due to the fabric fibers necessitating combination with materials that can conduct electricity in order to sense motion and input, transfer data, or change appearance. These additional materials are stiff and often not pleasing to the wearer (or onlookers), and suffer durability issues. Expect continual advancements in the technologies below over the coming decade (more on these materials can be found here):

  • Polymeric or carbon-coated threads
  • Conductive yarn, fibers, rubber, and ink (see photo below bullet list)
  • Metallic yarn, organza, and stainless steel filament
  • Optical fibers
  • Screen printing with carbon, copper, silver, nickel, or gold added to inks
Conductive Ink, image from DuPont on InkWorld

Access & Mobility

Smart textiles offer opportunities to seamlessly monitor the health of those with disease or disabilities (for doctors and loved ones alike), as well as location of children and the elderly through GPS embedded sensors. This can bring great peace of mind to all parties involved.  When smart clothing wearers are no longer “device dependent,” data collection happens invisibly, leaving room for others to monitor more easily––if given explicit consent and access, of course. Data access needs will necessitate new software markets for easy analysis of multiple inputs on both an individual and aggregate level, especially as smart textiles connect to other data collection devices in the home, school, vehicle, and even city.

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