Technothreads take off

FASHION and technology don’t appear mutually exclusive. One is aesthetic; the other functional. Yet this surface incompatibility belies untold commercial potential. Hot on the trend radar for 2013 are ‘wearables’ or wearable technology — garments that do more than simply look good. Shoes that detect wireless connections, tracksuit bottoms that tell you how far you’ve been running, social networking t-shirts and textiles with memory storing fibre are just some of the 3.0 gadgetry on the rise. If it sounds like you’ve entered a style tardis; think again. This isn’t a glimpse into the future. It’s happening right now.

In fact the future is so near that tech analyst Jupiter Research estimates wearable computing to generate revenues of $1.5bn in 2014 with annual unit sales rising from $15m to $70m by 2017. Given the lucrative nature of techno threads; not to mention their attendant bragging rights, the race to create functional fashion with mass appeal is well under way.

A glimpse of this brave new world hit the catwalks of New York Fashion Week last September when Diane Von Furstenberg accessorised her spring/summer 13 line with Google Glass — the internet behemoth’s eponymous augmented reality frames.

For $1,500, wearers can use voice commands to email, tweet, take pictures, see walking directions, record videos and view language translations directly from their custom glasses. What’s more, a virtual reality feature allows third-party engagement from a singular viewpoint — a USP the brand integrated into a behind-the-scenes video of the runway show as observed through the eyes of the designer.

Despite its novelty factor, the verdict is still out on the specs appeal of Google Glass. A comment on the Google+ Project Glass page reads: “When the idea of an optical implant came up somewhere in the 70ies sci-fi books, it was sexy. Because it was an implant. A hassle free, non-carrying around in your face freakin’ sci-fi implant. (sic)” Crucially, without a strong lifestyle element, the shift from early adapter to mass market will continue to prove a sticking point for 2.0 wearables. Google is thus reportedly negotiating with Warby Parker, a trendy e-commerce optics start-up, to enhance the product’s design before its drop date in 2014 with talk of an experiential retail store also in the ether.

Apple’s iWatch is also trending as a hot tech topic, with the company’s strong design kudos rivalling that of Google. Although not to be released for another three years, the wrist bling is rumoured to enable iPhone and Android devices via Bluetooth with Apple’s voice assistant Siri. The result? Users can make and take calls, and receive timely information all from a 1.5in touchscreen. The Inspector Gadget comparisons loom large as does functionality speculation from checking map co-ordinates and making mobile payments to the prospect of a pedometer and in-built heart rate monitor.

Zeitgeist aside, the real question is how to make sci-fi sexy. Let’s face it. Talking to your wrist can feel a bit silly, especially when everyone in earshot now knows you need directions to the gynaecologist. Experienced designer Jennifer Darmour, the brains behind e-textile website Electricfoxy, breaks it down for product design blog Artefact (artefactgroup.com): “I would say that unless wearables become beautiful and meaningful, we would not see them adopted by regular people. There will always be tech enthusiasts who try the latest gadget (remember the Segway?) but there will not be any real mass adoption to speak of.”

Darmour knows what she’s talking about. Her prototype Pilates shirt Move is literally stretching the definition of wearable computing with its streamlined, lightweight interface and lifestyle platform.

The garment includes stretch and bend sensors within the fabric that read the body’s position and muscle movement, assess whether it is correct and, if not, notifies the wearer through a vibration. A mobile app allows users to connect to a cloud service that tracks data, stores progress, a library of poses and custom moves.

Darmour has been innovative in identifying the tipping point between need and novelty; something Google’s Art, Copy & Code project needs to mirror should its talking shoe prototype grow legs. The concept footwear — a pair of customised Adidas high-tops fitted with a conical speaker and movement translator — was showcased this month at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival. What’s more, the pedalian coach, which is pre-programmed with 250 phrases, motivates, cheers and chastises according to the wearer’s level of activity. Only for hardcore fitness fans.

Social networking garments are also proving their hashtag worth from CuteCircuit’s twitter dress, as spotted on X Factor judge Nicole Sherzinger, to Electricfoxy’s Ping garment which wirelessly connects wearers to Facebook by simple movement or garment-specific actions like using a zip or button. CuteCircuit takes sharing one step further with the tshirtOS prototype — a collaboration with Ballantine’s — which allows wearers to communicate across Facebook and twitter with a seamless built-in micro-camera, microphone, accelerometer and speakers; not to mention a 32 by 32 RGB pixel grid embedded, for full colour display.

The tshirtOS Facebook page is currently asking members what uses the garment should have. Answers range from the practical like voice guided sat nav for cyclists to creative solutions like interactive visuals for DJs and walking advertisements for photographers. Then there’s the downright inane, as one commentator suggested, “program it to say “I’m with Stupid” and then have an arrow point at my friend (sic).”

Maybe the future isn’t so bright. Or maybe we’ve just got to smarten up. The clothes may not maketh the man, but in a few years, this could all change.

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