Already popular with sportspeople, communicating clothes and shoes can also be used to improve mobility and safety.
Will our whole wardrobe be interactive in the future?
This year’s Futurotextiles expo showcased a range of innovative uses of smart textiles, ranging from dresses that reflect the wearer’s mood and T-shirts which display messages and monitor our health, to pollution-protection suits and rompers that monitor babies.
The event, organised by the Centre Européen des Textiles Innovants – (European Centre for Innovative Textiles), showed that new technologies can bring added value to professional garments, as well as inspiring fashion designers.
Even at the prototype stage, these clothes are proof of the booming smart fabrics industry and an entire ecosystem, with revenue due to grow by around 21% by 2016, according to TechNavio. Textile specialists have been developing interactive, environmentally-sensitive fibres made up of conductive, communicating threads. Electronic circuit and GPS system makers, meanwhile, are making their systems even smaller, more flexible and water-resistant so they can be embedded into garments.
Smart fabrics are also being designed to ensure safety for people with high-risk jobs (e.g. the armed forces or firemen), and to monitor patients’ conditions in hospitals. They are being increasingly used for sportswear too, either for performance monitoring (the Quantified Self) or safety, for example, for automatic GPS location or triggering alerts when exercising in high-risk conditions, such as at night-time (read about the NR4 illuminated running suit, pictured opposite), which protects joggers and makes them more visible after dark.
The smartphone that fits like a glove
So are wearable technologies meant eventually to replace our mobile devices? A number of engineers and designers are certainly working towards this: English designer Sean Miles, for example, has designed a Bluetooth-enabled glove with a microphone which, when interfaced with a smartphone, can be used to make calls. This technology would prove valuable for employees whose job requires them to wear gloves (on building sites or in low temperatures, for example), not to mention athletes training in the winter, for whom using a mobile without taking their gloves off requires considerable dexterity. A number of other manufacturers, such as Taiwanese firm TouchMan, have also been working on the issue of using mobile devices whilst wearing gloves, and have come up with stainless steel fibre gloves which allow the wearer to use touch panel devices.
Connected shoes for sportspeople and the visually impaired
Athletes are an obvious target for makers of smart shoes: back in 2004, there was Adidas 1, which featured a sensor embedded in the heels. The shoe adjusted itself after each stride, using a motor in the middle of the sole. The motor then turned a screw, which in turn lengthened or shortened a cable, changing the compression characteristics of the heel pad. Adidas then applied similar technology to basketball shoes, featuring a chip configured specially for the impacts generated by the sport.
In 2006, Nike and Apple came up with Nike + which, used with an iPod or iPhone, was a real-time personal trainer. A special basketball version was also released. Adidas responded in 2011 by launching the adizero f50 and MiCoach app), marketed as the “boot with a brain”. This smart football boot (pictured opposite) could track performance data (speed, number of sprints, distance, stride rates, etc.) and upload it wirelessly to a mobile device so it could then be shared via special networks, allowing users to compare their performance with that of professional footballers.
Not ones to be outdone, Google brought out in the spring of 2013 a prototype of a talking shoe, which could give encouragements and compliments to the wearer.
But miniaturised technologies and GPS tracking can also be applied to help people with physical disabilities. In 2011, two young Indian engineers, one of whom is an MIT graduate, set up Ducere to promote an electronic sole that can guide the visually impaired via voice commands and vibrations using a Bluetooth connection to a smartphone and GPS system, with downloadable maps that can be used offline. The shoe also features an ultrasound obstacle detector.
So when will they invent a shoe smart enough to choose a matching outfit?