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Why Your Future Clothes Will be Stuffed with Electronics

Reading about the Zegna Freeway jacket–it’s got high-visibility LEDs in the back of the collar for improving “safety in urban outdoor travel situations”–made me realize how close the future of clothing may be. Wearable electronics will soon be a normal part of our lives.

Reading about the Zegna Freeway jacket–it’s got high-visibility LEDs in the back of the collar for improving “safety in urban outdoor travel situations”–made me realize how close the future of clothing may be. Wearable electronics will soon be a normal part of our lives.

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Zegna unashamedly aims the Freeway at the high-end market, since the garment costs $845. But for that price you get those glowing collar lights that last for 25 hours on high-brightness or 250 hours on low, fed by a rechargeable Li-ion battery pack that can also double as a cellphone emergency power source.

The jacket is just one of a clutch of wearable electronic devices that are already on the market. For the main, the available clothing is mainly sportswear, and is mainly targeted at users who want to control their cellphones or iPods without taking them out of a pocket. That’s what Rome’s Snowboard jackets are designed for: They’ve got a joystick built into the wrist flaps for controlling an iPod for music on the slopes without opening the jacket and letting the cold air in.

There’s also the set of T-shirts with dynamic illumination–like the Wi-Fi T-shirt which shows the strength of a Wi-Fi signal near the wearer, or the T-equalizer “fun” T-shirt which reacts to external noise and displays a graphic equalizer on the T-shirt front–perfect for music festivals.

But wearable electronic gadgets already on the market aren’t exclusively for fun or entertainment purposes: There’s a large number of solar-powered bags and laptop cases on sale, stuffed with photovoltaic cells and ready to supply cellphones, MP3 players or laptops with eco-friendly on-the-go charging.

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And in addition to these, there’s the growing hobby of DIY wearable electronics. One of this movement’s most visible proponents is MIT’s Leah Buechley, who works with conductive threads, modified Arduino DIY-programmable controller units and combines them with clothing. Her cycle jacket, for example, uses her own Lilypad Arduino setup along with conductive wiring and wrist-mounted switches to operate a high visibility LED turn sign on the back of the jacket: It’s designed to improve a cyclist’s safety.

And Leah’s work points to how the future of wearable electronics will be–really smart clothing. The iPod-control jackets and solar-powered handbags are all very neat, but they’re not very smart–they augment convenience rather than adding to your lifestyle.

But converge them together, add in a CPU, flexible electronics, skin-conductive wireless signaling (also known as skintenna’s) and Near-Field Communications and you’ll have a set of very powerful garments indeed that not only communicate with your gadgets, but also charge them.

Imagine a jacket that has a display you can control–either to match your other clothes’ colors, or a dynamic pattern change–with integrated fabric controls for your cellphone and iPod that sync wirelessly with the notebook PC you have slipped into your solar-charging backpack. The possibilities are endless: Say you want to share a video clip with a friend–you merely shake hands and each of your jacket interfaces handle the near-field communications needed to transfer the file.

One main thing that’s lacking to make this scenario real is a commonly agreed interface standard for wearable electronics. Call it FGB–flexible garment bus, or WGB for wireless garment bus. The resulting clothing won’t be so much a wearable computer, more a wearable gadget interface that lets your gizmos interact, share information and battery power, or even charge up via solar panels or flexible power-generating fabric (a tech that’s also on its way.)

This is all most definitely coming soon, for at least two reasons: It’ll reduce iPod theft, which is currently on the rise. And secondly, it’s just cool.

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About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)

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