The T-Shirt That Thinks

The next revolution in apparel? Digital clothing that will forever alter branding and reinvigorate the way we live our lives.

In the film Blade Runner, neo-noir Los Angeles holds pockets of dangerous bioengineered entities called “replicants,” who are virtually indistinguishable from their flesh and blood counterparts. The inability to tell them apart resonates as one of the dominant themes in the movie; in fact, the true nature of Harrison Ford’s hard-boiled bounty hunter dogs the movie right to the end.

The future of apparel exists in a very similar state. Clothing has always been inanimate. It didn’t do things like collect data. It didn’t think. But technology is transforming the notion of what wearables can do. Apparel and accessories are becoming infused with electronics – woven with conductive thread, decorated with changing displays. Just like the replicants, many of these items won’t outwardly bear these digital hallmarks. In enough time, two T-shirts will be laid side-by-side, and no one will be able to tell which is just fabric, and which houses an electronic skeleton coursing through its fiber walls.

This construct will change apparel forever. Smart wearables will radicalize the branding capabilities of apparel. They’ll position information at our instant beckoning. They will literally tell us how we should live. With enough time, the tech will burrow so deeply inside the garments that the category of wearable technology won’t exist anymore. There will only be clothing.

The Next Big Thing

Considering how much people use their cell phones, one can argue that wearable technology is already here. But the next step – electronic devices worn on the body – is perhaps the most buzzed-about category in consumer electronics. About 90 million wearable tech devices will ship this year, according to ABI Research. The Consumer Electronics Association reported last year that 13% of U.S. consumers intended to buy a wearable fitness device in the next 12 months, compared to 3% the year before. Earlier this year at CES, the largest technology trade show, wearable tech items simply dominated the conversation and media reports.

Wearable technology is certainly having a moment, but it also remains fraught with problems. Foremost among that is the startling rate at which these products are abandoned. According to research by Endeavour Partners, one-third of U.S. consumers who own a wearable product stop using it within six months. The problem is particularly exacerbated with fitness trackers such as Fitbit and Jawbone, which have burned bright but also threaten to burn out; many use them for initial lifestyle changes but not long-term.

Other issues? Smartwatches, such as Samsung’s Galaxy Gear and the just-announced Apple watch, have been regarded as watered-down versions of smart phones. And potentially revolutionary devices like Google Glass remain at least a few years away from penetrating the consumer market. Many experts have likened the current state of wearable technology to the pre-iPhone era of smart phones, before Apple refined the category with one swift blow.

There is an additional concern: every item mentioned in that previous paragraph is an accessory. “I don’t wear a bracelet or a watch [normally],” says Jesse Slade Shantz, who has extensively tried the fitness tracker bands. “It was bit outside what would be my normal fashion choices. But I always wear a shirt and clothes, so it’s very natural to integrate sensors into clothes. There’s not that friction to putting it on or remembering it.”

Shantz is the chief medical officer for OMsignal, one of the first bridging the gap from accessory to apparel. The Toronto company has created a T-shirt with fibers built into the chest that read heart rate, breathing, motion and much more. A sensor plate relays that information to a cell phone, which uses OMsignal’s app to crunch the data into meaningful health information for the user. Have you been inactive for too long during the day? Your shirt tells you to get moving. Of course it gives you calories burned, but the company is testing advanced concepts like its Fuel meter, which gauges energy and lets the user know how quickly it’s draining and what can be done to slow it down.

OMsignal has been careful to keep the product aimed at fitness enthusiasts, but the garment has tremendous potential benefits for others, such as people recovering from heart attacks, for example. Regardless of the type of person, “we’re recognizing that people don’t want this ream of data shot at them,” says Shantz. “They want to have that data given to them in a way that allows [them] to make decisions in their lives to reach their goals.”

Shantz hints at the quandary the average person faces in the digital revolution. We have unfettered access to data and information. How do we access it? What do we use it for? How often do we need it? And what happens to our daily lives as a result? According to an article in WIRED, on average we unlock our mobile gadgets more than 100 times a day. This always-on capability creeps into our time at the computer, in conversation with others, and of course our driving.

The issue, says Thad Starner, wearable computing pioneer and Google Glass technical lead, is that in all of our technology devices (desktops, laptops and mobile), their use controls our attention. We have to look at a screen. It’s why driving a car and texting is dangerous or holding a conversation with someone while writing an e-mail is rude. Wearable computing, he argues, exists in a supporting role to living our lives. “It may seem like a paradox,” he wrote in an opinion piece for WIRED, “but I argue that bringing technology and computing closer to the body can actually improve communication and attention — allowing technology to get further out of the way.”

That is the idea behind Google’s impending smart eyewear device – to execute tasks like recording video or summoning information during the normal actions of life, instead of attention being diverted away. A similar premise exists behind the embroidered interfaces being created in Starner’s Contextual Computing Group at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Conductive thread can be embroidered into a garment through a decoration or feature such as a button. It can then be interfaced with any device through Bluetooth. By simply manipulating the embroidery, a cell phone can be silenced during a meeting, for example, or the lights in a room can be turned on and off. “If we can reduce the time between intention and action,” says Clint Zeagler, a research scientist at Georgia Tech who is working on the project, “people will use these things a lot more.”

Likewise, the company Wearable Experiments has made forays into wearable tech, including a jacket with built-in feedback pads that work with a cell phone GPS. When it’s time to turn right, the jacket vibrates on that side. Company President Billie Whitehouse designed the jacket after noting how many people in cities are staring at their phones and almost falling off sidewalks or getting hit by cars. “This was a way to get people away from looking at their screens to look at a map, put the phone back in their pocket and actually walk around and be in the city,” she says. “See what’s around you, connect with the other people around you.

“And on a bicycle it’s super useful.”

Brand New

In as little as a few years, it’s very possible that wearable tech items will be an integral part of our daily lives. However, widespread consumer use of these devices (outside of current fitness trackers) remains far away. Any interactions with those items right now will be a completely new experience. And because of that, the effectiveness of wearable technology as a marketing vehicle can be obscenely high.

Wearable Experiments developed items that were used successfully in two marketing campaigns. The Alert shirt features force feedback that simulates the hits that occur on the field for Australian rules football. Fox delivered 4,500 shirts over three months to sports fans as part of a sign-up package for its TV coverage. Wearable Experiments also developed, to promote Durex, his-and-her underwear sets called Fundawear that allowed couples to stimulate each other from long distance. Twenty prototypes were developed that were used by celebrities and on radio and TV spots. As marketing tools, “we found them to be extremely effective,” says Whitehouse, who then rattles off a series of numbers from the original Fundawear campaign: eight million views on YouTube, 55,000 requests for the item and 1,600 articles written about it, all in under two weeks.

But what if a garment could feature a digital display – something that essentially takes the branding power of apparel decoration and makes it malleable, updatable, dynamic. That is the premise of tshirtOS. The idea was conceived by, of all things, a spirits company (Ballantine’s) as an extension of its branding motto, “Leave an Impression.” The shirt features 876 LED lights on the front that display messages of the wearer’s choosing – static or scrolling text and 20 pre-set animations, and is connected to a server where a large number of images and animated gifs can be accessed. People who encounter the shirt are fascinated by it, says Alison Lewis, CEO and creative director of Switch Embassy, which researched and designed the shirt. “I think,” she says, “there’s an innate human want to communicate and connect. … It’s about being together, and [this shirt] creates such a wonderful communicative platform, that people get excited about it.”

Switch Embassy has produced 25 of the shirts that are being used by Ballantine’s brand ambassadors all over the world. As the shirts are used, Switch Embassy collects data. Users prefer text over the animations, for example. The Russian marketers can be found using the shirt most often in bars (natch). And the technology is really just beginning, Lewis says. The LEDs can be placed on any apparel garment that can be embroidered. “I just want people to imagine an entire room or a concert full of people all wearing products that are working in rhythm with each other, singing to each other, responding to each other,” says Lewis.

The promise of wearable technology is certainly vast, with potential applications ranging from advertising to fashion to industrial uses. Research labs and design companies are creating these technologies, but licensed partners and investors may determine where it will be used. Where will this technology find traction? It’s the very dilemma that faces EroGear, which also has developed LED displays that can fit on garments. “We think [advertising is] the sustainable value for us in the market,” says Jim Baka, who heads business development for the company. “We don’t want to be a one and done trendy apparel item that goes one or two seasons and then it’s over.” The company is looking to sell the integrated apparel and programming access to franchisees who can then work with local brands. Baka says that EroGear’s flexible display technology, called Fos, can be deployed at large public events like sports game and concerts. “It costs like $5,000 to $15,000 for a jumbotron ad,” he says. “We picture ourselves as being the minitron in that stadium environment.”

Designs on the Future

Wearable technology has a design problem. “Most technologists, about 80% of them, are completely missing the mark on the importance of human identity,” says Lewis. It starts with the label, she says. Switch Embassy is a fashion technology company, not a wearable technology company. The Silicon Valley execs that Lewis meets with “are completely frightened of fashion,” she says. “When I use that term to even discuss my business, they turn off, or tell me to use the word platform or wearable instead.”

The issue shouldn’t be a surprise. The rush of initial wearable tech products has spawned from the minds of tech gurus. Utilizing the rapidly decreasing cost and size of electronic components, they have created products with robust functionality – and gadget geek aesthetics. Fashion designers are no better in bridging the divide. The fashion students that Zeagler teaches, for example, are excited by the notion of apparel technology but start retreating when they see wires involved.

The issue is simple but hard to remedy. Technology experts don’t know the process for designing apparel; fashion designers don’t know how to integrate electronics into clothing. “The vocabulary between a fashion designer and a computer scientist is so different,” says Zeagler. “When you say design, they think of completely different things.”

The big names are starting to get the picture and are plucking top talent from the fashion world, as Apple did last year by hiring the CEO of Burberry. Meanwhile, on the ground level, designers with enough proficiency to work both sides are starting to break down the barriers. Zeagler, for example, graduated from fashion school but was inspired by a professor who had pioneered multiple wearable tech devices. “I was interested in the research, but I was also interested in aesthetics and making it look good,” he says. At Starner’s lab, he has furthered the collaborative approach. In one example, he and others created a functional swatch book to demonstrate the electronic embroidery, and invited both fashion and tech people to workshops to examine it together. The department has created a Wearable Computing Center to any answer question someone might have on the subject.

Lewis too has merged her love of fashion design with her interest in technology. She put her fashion expertise to use with the tShirtOS, spending three-and-a-half months researching the project and evaluating over 1,000 materials. “From a fashion perspective, we’ve made it really wearable,” she says. “Most people say, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve seen these things.’ Then they walk over, touch it, and – excuse my French – say ‘Holy s***.’ It really feels amazing.”

The idea, says Lewis, is it “meets the basic qualifications of what a T-shirt should do” – soft, drapeable, great to the touch. Switch Embassy has had trouble keeping the shirts clean, Lewis says, because so many people want to feel it.

Fashion’s ultimate purpose will be to bring these devices to the masses in a way that makes them fit in rather than stand out. The appearance has to be polished and engaging to betray the technology that lies underneath. “People don’t want to look and feel like a computer,” says Whitehouse. “The more technology it has on the outside, the less people will want to wear it.” The technology has to be invisible and seamless, she says, and the item has to be comfortable no matter what.

Top brands have also begun to legitimize the technology. OMsignal partnered with Ralph Lauren to demonstrate the technology at the recent tennis U.S. Open, while Diane Von Furstenberg is crafting glasses to work with Google Glass.

Other developments must occur as well. The quality of materials, particularly fabrics, needs to improve to better synthesize with electronic components. Wearable tech developers also need to avoid biting off more than they can chew. Eddie Hold, an expert on the subject for the NPD Group, argues that innovators should avoid trying to create an all-purpose item that works as “a Swiss army knife” like smart phones. “The true power of the ‘wearable’ future,” he wrote in a blog post, “is a transition from a unitary world – carrying one smartphone that attempts to be a source of all data – to a distributed device future, where these wearables work together to provide a complete picture.”

The good news is that these issues are surmountable; in the smart phone era, wearable tech companies have already been able to quickly accelerate their timetables. Inventive minds simply have to tackle the challenge. “I used to talk about all these barriers that were keeping it from happening five years ago,” Zeagler says, “but now I’m really excited. It’s starting. We’re on the cusp.”