The burgeoning field of interactive textiles lets consumers gather information via their garments.
By Janice Kleinschmidt
The seamless integration of “self-centric technology into everyday life” is where opportunity lies, Stephane Marceau proclaimed in an April article he wrote for VentureBeat. “We can discover and challenge our physical boundaries, uncover our inner athletes and outperform our own goals.”
Marceau so believes this that he undertook a long-term project to lead the charge. In 2011 he co-founded OMsignal, a Montreal-based company that in May of this year began taking orders for men’s biometric shirts that monitor activity, physiological stress and fitness levels. A women’s collection is expected to be released by year’s end.
“Our products are well suited for the fitness market, but the possibilities are endless,” Marceau says. “Our team is on a mission to bring personal wellness into our daily lives.”
Another Montreal-based company with biometric shirts that track heart, respiratory and activity data launched sales in the fall of 2013.
“We’ve been working on wearable health technologies since 2006,” says Hexoskin (Carr© Technologies Inc.) co-founder and CEO Pierre-Alexandre Fournier. “Up to 2009, we had a traditional approach in our wearable-sensor development; it looked more like a device you would see in a hospital. In 2009 we decided to adopt a form that fits into people’s lives.”
Hexoskin now targets “active consumers” and fitness trainers. “We’ve also had significant traction in the health research market, and we work on a regular basis with space agencies,” Fournier says. The company plans to distribute its products through retail locations and adapt them to specific needs in international markets. Meanwhile, its garments are sold exclusively through the company’s website.
During the same seven-year, start-to-launch period, Globe Manufacturing Co. of Pittsfield, N.H., developed its Wearable Advanced Sensor Platform (WASP™). Introduced to emergency responder training academies in 2013, WASP uses sensors mounted on an adjustable strap embedded within a flame-resistant T-shirt that tracks heart and respiration rates, activity levels, posture and other physiological factors.
“As transmission technology improves with the government-funded FirstNet public safety cellular system, we expect to distribute WASP through a network of dealers worldwide,” says Mark Mordecai, director of business development.
Heapsylon of Redmond, Wash., has developed a T-shirt, sports bra and socks with a range of smart textiles. Sensoria® garments gather heart rate, force and pressure data; the socks track activity, measure cadence, detect foot-landing technique and pick up center-of-balance information. Released in March, the T-shirt and sports bra are available only on the company’s website. Vivobarefoot is distributing the socks in 400 stores worldwide. Heapsylon also has contracted with a reseller to develop other outlets, focusing on military, government agency and first-responder markets.
“We also believe the health care industry has major applications for Sensoria,” CEO David Vigano says. “Sensoria technology eventually will provide systems and services that monitor patients remotely and around the clock to prevent, detect and manage injuries or complications; collect patient data; reduce costs and readmissions; and provide better quality of care to patients.”
“Sensoria products can bring benefits to all levels of runners and other athletes by providing real-time feedback regarding the quality of the workout,” he adds. “Trainers will be able to use our mobile app, dashboard and cloud-based software to remotely access their clients’ data and effectively provide a superior service without the need to be present. Also, traditional fitness and sports-clothing companies will be able to launch a smart-clothing line by simply integrating our sensing technology into their garments.”
The adage “it takes a village” bears weight here. “We have always taken the route that assembling a team of experts from industry, universities, government and end-users with different experiences, expertise and requirements is the most effective approach to undertaking large, long-term and relatively high-risk developments,” Mordecai says. He, Vigano and Fournier count among their team members in-house personnel and consultants that include software and hardware engineers, materials engineers, physiology experts, electronics technologists, lab-based researchers, designers, project managers and marketing professionals.
Much of the research and development takes place at universities. Virginia Tech Professor Tom Martin tests simulations and occasionally builds prototypes with fabrics incorporating wires sewn or woven into fabric. Lately he’s been working on a project funded by the National Science Foundation.
“The idea is to classify people’s activities, annotating physiological monitoring,” Martin says. “It’s potentially useful information for caregivers. It certainly has applications in physical therapy and sports. We could use it to count how many exercises you have done or how well you have done certain moves. It could be used in a practice session by a coach.”
Collaborating with Martin on the project is Lucy Dunne, associate professor in the University of Minnesota’s Apparel Design Program. She also works with other universities and government research labs using conductive fibers, as well as traditional and advanced functional fabrics for applications related to sports, rehabilitation, firefighting and space.
“We see our role as working to overcome bigger problems that are too expensive and long-term for industries to address. We’ve made huge strides, but a lot of the exciting stuff is still pretty far from market,” she says. “There are significant obstacles in manufacturing and durability, but also in design and interdisciplinary teamwork from the product development aspect. The tech industry often focuses on ‘gadgety’ things, which don’t always blend well with how consumers view, use and understand clothing and accessories.”
“Chemical and electronics engineers, textile designers, programmers and fashion designers need to work together and have the same vocabulary,” says Sabine Seymour, assistant professor of fashionable technology at Parsons The New School for Design in New York, N.Y. “You need a different infrastructure for selling to various markets.”
Researchers credit advances in conductive fibers, nanotechnology and the increased flexibility and diminished size of electronics as primary breakthroughs in interactive textiles. But limitations remain, including power generation.
“There are attempts made to include energy harvesters in daily utilities such as shoes, exercise machines, etc.,” says Thamizhisai Periyaswamy, assistant professor of apparel merchandising and design at Central Michigan University. “They are capable of producing currents in the order of microamps and nanoamps. Some of these energy harvesters can be used to extend the use of battery power in mobile devices. Nevertheless, disadvantages such as slow response time to charge/store and limited power make them unattractive for the general public at this point.”
“The real trick is not generating more energy, but using less energy for whatever device you have on the garment,” Martin says. “People talk about harvesting energy from the sun, movement and changes in temperature. There are some limits you are not going to overcome. We have to get in the mindset that these devices have to be low power.”
According to Fournier, “The biggest breakthroughs are yet to come. Nanotechnology will probably be part of the answer when we reach the point where it’s affordable enough to be included in consumer products.”
Whatever breakthroughs and limitations present themselves, developing interactive clothing requires a new way of thinking, Mordecai says.
“Smart textiles have historically been developed from the technology out rather than the application in. By designing to meet the challenging requirements of the emergency-responder application and then developing solutions, WASP was able to integrate available technologies to solve a real-life problem.”
Part of the complexity behind bringing smart textiles to market lies in the integration of products from businesses that have traditionally gone their own ways.
“The clothing industry and the electronics and software industries have never really talked to each other,” Fournier says. “We spent years developing the manufacturing processes we needed to produce an electronic shirt with the level of quality we wanted at the cost we were targeting.”
“There are completely different sets of tolerances in the textile and electronics industries,” Martin adds.“ Setting up our supply chain to scale was a challenge,” Marceau says. “Our supply chain has two prongs: textile and electronics. Finding the best partner is critical.”
“The important thing to remember is that we have most definitely moved beyond the idea that functionality alone is enough,” says Marie O’Mahony, professor of advanced fashion and textiles at Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) University in Toronto, Ont. Canada. “If something is not comfortable, the user simply will not wear it.”
Wearability was, in fact, a major challenge for Globe’s WASP suit.
“This involved developing a flame-resistant, moisture-wicking, four-way stretch, base-layer fabric, but also developing a shirt form that could be worn comfortably throughout a 24-hour shift, maintain sensor-skin contact in a wide range of activities, and be adjusted, donned and doffed easily,” Mordecai says.
“As with any technological development, there could be versions that can attain marketability sooner, but will then evolve,” Periyaswamy says. “A lack of industry-scale production facilities restrains most innovations to remain in laboratories.”
But, as Marceau stated in his VentureBeat article, “The physics of fabric and the inconspicuous power of smart textile technology are a match made in heaven.”
If he’s right, then perhaps Martin’s insight will be realized:“I think it’s going to take the first really
commercially successful product to take off. Once somebody gets it right, everybody will get it right.”