Hide Magic Up Your Sleeve, Fabric Could be Your New Touchscreen

Jul 15, 2015

The development of the wearable device landscape is leading to growing convergence across IT and other industries. Technology vendors and vertical-specific OEMs are collaborating to design and launch smart watches and jewellery. There is also a lot of expectation surrounding the development of smart clothing, fueled by partnerships between technology providers and fashion designers such as Ralph Lauren. However, most existing smart clothing initiatives are niche and fitness-oriented, rather than engaging with fashion retailers to make regular clothing interactive. Developments in the regular clothing market are stunted by technical limitations such as washability, flexibility and the difficulty of mass producing smart textiles that look like regular clothing.

Some existing examples of smart clothing providers are Sensoria, which is a wearable technology company manufacturing smart socks and OMsignal which produces smart shirts for fitness tracking.  They offer smart clothing that provide insight into particular fitness parameters such as heart rate, running style etc. rather than enabling clothing to interact with the surrounding virtual space.

Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) division hopes to overcome these barriers and revolutionise the textile industry with Project Jacquard. Project Jacquard combines natural-looking conductive fibre with a Bluetooth controller to turn a piece of fabric into a touchscreen interface that can control electronic devices nearby. The conductive fibres are available in different colours and can blend in with natural textile yarns enabling mass manufacturing of smart clothing in existing industrial looms and machines.  For enhanced smart clothing features, Project Jacquard can also leverage technology from Project Soli, which constitutes a button-sized radar that recognizes simple hand gestures.

These advancements are promising not only because of the technology but the company’s commercial approach to the market. Unlike the Google Glass, Google does not intend to produce smart clothing, but aims to offer a platform that allows easy collaboration between developers and textile designers. This way, textile designers can focus on design, leaving the software and application to the developers. This market strategy provides room for development of creative applications. For example, answering a phone call by sliding a finger across the jacket sleeve, turning off the lights with a tap on the sleeve, operating TV with furniture fabric or operating machines with an industrial jacket.  These applications bring clothing to the centre of the consumer’s connected universe. Fabric can act as a remote for seamless interaction with the virtual world. Moreover, involvement of designers will ensure development of products that resemble regular clothing with an additional ‘smart’ capability, rather than a product that is gadgety and removed from what consumers are used to.

Google is partnering with Levis Strauss to develop smart clothing. However, the product is still under development and commercial aspects of pricing are yet to be disclosed. Therefore, despite technological advancements, the high cost of smart textiles could likely inhibit immediate adoption. But, market maturity and increased vendor competition in the manufacture of smart textiles is expected to bring down market prices and give way to mass market uptake of smart textiles post 2020.

Category : Mobile & Wireless

Shuba Ramkumar


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