The Growing Smart Clothing Market

The Emerging Smart Clothing Market

In 1984, Adidas introduced the Micropacer, the first shoe to feature a computer. In the 1980s, having wearable technology was a big deal. Back then commercially available personal computers were only starting to emerge, so having your running shoes equipped with technology was extraordinary. A lot has changed since then—technology has made a previously unthinkable leap, and smart clothing is rapidly evolving.

Wearables are all around us today; having technology integrated with everyday apparel is becoming less uncommon. Integrating digital health sensors into clothing has many purported benefits. One assertion is sensors closer to the skin measure heart rate more accurately than wrist trackers. Another belief is that digital health technology will get more widely adopted when it’s not an ancillary purchase but rather a feature of items that are already commonly purchased.

Smart Clothes for Better Training

Athos, one of the world’s first smart clothes options, gives you the ability to look at what is happening inside your body while you train. Equipped with various sensors, Athos measures the electrical activity in the user’s muscles in real time and connects with an app that gives them constant feedback. Using electromyography (EMG), this ground-breaking wearable detects how much effort an individual muscle is putting into the workout.

Not only does this let the users know which muscles they are activating, it also tells them if they are exercising hard enough to achieve their training goals. Moreover, users can easily establish if they are using the right muscle or muscle group and become more self-aware as well. The feedback empowers users to improve and adjust their effort to maximize their progress.

In addition to monitoring muscle activity, Athos also features heart rate sensors and breathing sensors, so the data captured during physical activity and exertion is extensive.

Up until recently, smart clothing was still not universally affordable, so it was predominantly used by professional athletes and weekend warriors with discretionary income. However, as is common with most tech, the price of smart apparel is now falling, which will likely fuel adoption. Also, the number of key players in the smart fashion market is increasing. Adidas, Athos, Catapult Sports, Heddoko, Nike, Hexoskin, Samsung and Under Armour have all been recognized as major contributors.

Work is also being done on the aesthetic and practical components of the garments, for example making the garments easy to clean without ruining the tech inside. Smart garments can now often be machine washed and sometimes even machine dried, increasing the convenience factor for consumers.

High Fashion Meets Health Technology

Studies of consumer needs have shown that users want their smart clothes to be both affordable and fashionable. Some big names in the fashion industry have already added smart technology into their products.

For instance, Ralph Lauren launched the Ralph Lauren PoloTech Shirt that comes with a PoloTech App. The elite shirt offers biometric readings (breathing, heart rate, calories burnt, steps taken) as well as provides information on the need to adjust your workout. The shirt has biosensing silver fibers incorporated into the fabric and it works with an iPhone or the Apple Watch. A purported additional hallmark of this snug shirt is that the fabric itself helps with blood circulation and muscle recovery. First tested during the 2014 U.S. Open, the PoloTech shirt is now commercially available and features technology developed by Canadian-based OMSignal, which also designed OMbra, a smart sports bra for women.

OMbra has sensors embedded into the fabric and tracks heart rate, distance, breathing rhythm and cadence and has been built specifically for women.  

Smart Clothing Beyond Fitness Applications

There is a growing amount of clothing modalities that can improve health and well-being. For instance, OMbra is not the only integrated digital health technology for womrn. The term smart bra means different things to different designers, ranging from acting as a wearable stress sensor to possibly having the potential to diagnose medical ailments. Microsoft’s smart bra includes an electrocardiogram (ECG) and an electrodermal activity sensor (EDA). By utilizing these two sensors, the garment is able to provide information on the user’s stress levels, after which a signal is sent to the accompanying smartphone app.

The bra has been marketed as a tool to prevent emotional overeating (the app coaxes the person into not eating when overstressed). However, little activity has been noted in the past couple of years, so the success of the product is uncertain.

Efforts are also being made to develop a breast-cancer-detecting bra. Temperature sensors embedded into a bra might soon have the potential to work more efficiently than the traditional mammogram and could act as a reliable cancer screening tool. The iTBra uses early detection technology. Smart patches are placed under the garment for 2 to 12 hours to collect data. A trial by the Stanford Medicine Group X   showed that iTBra correlates with a verified diagnosis of breast cancer by up to 87 percent, higher than a mammogram at 83 percent. The iTBra connects with a smartphone and uses no radiation to identify circadian temperature changes within breast cells. Since early detection is crucial for successful cancer treatment, this garment could pave the way for other common garments that can save lives in the future.

New smart garments are also getting better at analyzing heart rate and determining the presence of different heart conditions, such as arrhythmia and atrial fibrillation. Electrocardiogram signals, which are often collected by smart clothes, can also assist in mood monitoring. Information is collected in real-time, which could help provide patients with correct treatment as soon as the symptoms get detected.

Researchers are already trialing smart clothes on chronically ill patients. As such, some experts (myself included) believe that smart apparel might become an integral part of future home care, potentially replacing hospital care monitoring.

Sources

Chen M, Ma Y, Song J, Lai C, Hu B. Smart Clothing: Connecting Human with Clouds and Big Data for Sustainable Health Monitoring. Mobile Networks And Applications. 2016;(5):825-845

Kim H, Kim J, Lee K, Meng Y, Yi S. Software architecture and stress tracker utilising nanofibre technique-based smart clothes. International Journal of Materials & Product Technology. 2014;49(1):41-56

Perez-Villacastin J, Gaeta E. Smart Clothes to Take Care of People or Smart People Who Use Clothes to Take Care of Themselves?. Revista Espanola De Cardiologia. 2015;(7):559-561

Perry A, Malinin L, Li Y, Leigh K, Sanders E. Explore consumer needs and design purposes of smart clothing from designers’ perspectives. International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education. 2017;1-9

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