Time for Wearable Electronics:
The wearable electronics revolution logically progresses to integration directly into the clothing we wear every day, and clothing certainly plays a part in the future of wearable electronics. For instance, gowns, vests or smart patches for medical patient monitoring of vital signs; or fashion, where integrated electronics could communicate, help the wearer stand out, or allow for dynamic, changing styles. All of the above is being explored today by technology start-ups and multinational businesses alike.
There are already a number of companies moving these electronics directly into clothing. The world of fashion is taking a lead in experimenting and generating publicity in the process. Smart fashion has caught the eye of mainstream media much more over the last year. Pop group the Black Eyed Peas recently completed a world tour in which lead singer Fergie wore a dress covered in OLED lighting panels, supplied by Philips.
Singer Katy Perry is another to sport electronic clothing, wearing a colour-changing LED dress to an awards ceremony.
Health and wellbeing applications in particular lend themselves to electronics in garments. There is already a growing market for fitness-related devices, such as wrist-worn monitors of biometric signals like the Fitbit. These devices allow the wearer to track activity such as steps taken and the restfulness of sleep, building towards an overall picture of their health. With consumers already showing an interest in such technology, more sophisticated versions, integrated directly and inconspicuously in clothing or accessories, could open the market further.
Big-name firms see these opportunities in wearable. Adidas was one of the first companies to make a move into wearables, acquiring electronics firm Textronics in 2008.The sportswear firm then launched the miCoach system: a clip-on control unit that collects data and provides audible coaching, with the option to couple with a complementary range of sports bras and vests to monitor heart rate as part of the data collection.
Many companies are looking to establish the use of wellbeing monitoring wearables in athletics first. Athletics provides a scenario where low-volume, premium devices will gain the exposure needed to capture the attention of High Street sportswear manufacturers, leading to higher volume markets.
With access to conformal, flexible electronics, wellbeing applications could be more readily achieved. Clip-on and rigid devices could be replaced by wraparound, discreet wristbands taking the trend for Fitbit-style devices further. Product developers would have some of the core components needed to produce a range of sportswear with seamlessly integrated sensors. Entire ranges of sportswear could gather a host of complementary data, synced in one easy-to-use online interface.
The US army Medical Research and Material Command Office has led a research project into a wear-and-forget sensing system woven into soldier’s underwear. Gel-free sensors form an electronic network within the fabric to monitor heart rate, respiration, activity, temperature and posture, and relay it to a central system. The technology would allow commanders to identify casualties, monitor combat, train and identify healthy soldiers for missions. The garments are comfortable, allowing soldiers to carry out missions without interference.
Many other exciting developments are underway to realise the flexible electronics needed for truly wearable devices. The first generation of smart watches may fall short as a demonstration of what wearable electronics can achieve, but they have proved a consumer appetite for wearable electronics. With some commercial launches on the horizon, a revolution of truly wearable electronics could soon be underway.
Flexible electronics would help transform accessories like smart watches into conformal, convenient, all-in-one devices.