The 2013 Smart Fabrics Europe Conference on wearable technology was held in Barcelona last week. Don’t be fooled by the name smart fabrics. In reality, this is a multi-disciplinary topic touching upon (flexible) electronics, nanotechnology and interaction design while attracting artists, designers, manufacturers, fashion labels and large multinationals as Nokia, LG, Apple, Philips. An excellent reminder that innovation occurs at the intersection of different sectors.
This article is organized in several sections:
1) wearable technology, 2) safety, 3) multidisciplinary research, 4) flexible device revolution enabled by nanotechnology, 5) battery life time, 6) Big Data stimulating DIY, 7) Imagination and 8) Innovation lessons.
Wearable technology is ready to market. The past few years were focused on showcases, featured designs and a lot experimentation and prototyping. But soon the first lightning textiles will be available to the general public, instead of only on stage artists like Bono and Rihanna. The question is whether the early adopters will be able to diffuse this way of smart dressing broadly to build the bridge over the dangerous “valley of death” every new innovation has to pass. The common feeling was, yes they will, and pretty soon. The conference took the visitors on roadshow from conceptual work to pragmatic solutions and applications.
Smart Fabrics can exist of different components: lightening, electronics or sensors to measure all different kind of things. Interactive textiles create changing patterns and new sensations. The sector is in search of true symbioses between technology and textile. It is all about being flexible, stretchable , bendable and having safe data and energy storage. The first step in wearable technology is integrating light, because: 1) good sale tool to grasp attention, 2) first step to integrate other functionalities into fabrics (sensors) 3) interaction is important for design. To get a better understanding, have a look at the following options already out there:
- The Climate Dress: the first ‘lightning’ dress from Diffus and Forster Rohner in 2009 detecting CO2 concentrations.
- Valisere Corsage Magique is presented as the intimate innovation for every woman. Hide and show organically. Cloths that are responsive and interactive with environment.
- Sporty Supahero wining reddot 2013 design making sure you are safe in the dark.
The Nest step – Light and GPS (sensors):
- No Place Like Home from Dominic Wilcox. In other words, the “take me home shoes and never get lost in a city”
I see you thinking, all nice and well. Flexible and bendable technology. But not near my body! Well, it seems that nowadays people are not that afraid to have electronics on their body. They already are continuously exposed it and want to have it within reach. People are more concerned with the “digital” security, than the physical/ medical safety. You don’t want a hacker getting into your skin or messing around with data and communication channels on your clothes to project offending texts or, even worse, direct you like a remote robot. As close as the wearable technology is to reach the tipping point from experimentation to going mainstream, the real smart garments need a bit more incubation time. Tapani Jokinen (Nokia) nicely framed it: “real innovation is a disruption: it is a risk and evokes change. We are currently somewhere between the old world and the new world. Everyone will have to change when the battlefield has finished and the winner is known.”
In general, a large growth market is foreseen for safety. Wearable light as a solution for safety through nighttime visibility and smart filters in cloths (or hip facial masks) to protect you against contamination. Different designers showed their models to jump into this new market. A need in the ever expanding smart urbanized (and polluted) city, where more and more urban nomads on a bike will appear. We need smart city designers and climate change solutioners. A beautiful example is the SMOG project of studio Roosegaarde. Create light in the dark. Recreate reality.
Note that fabrics reaches far broader than fashion. It can be used in medical devices, (car) furniture and decoration or building materials. Philip’s Blue Touch project focuses on special medical devices that may replace medicines. Wearable light in combination with wearable phototherapy. The blue light is able to cure muscle ache. Within the FP7 place-it-project.com, they co-investigate how electronics can be fit on your body. That this topic requires a lot of research is also witnessed by the different EU research projects that were presented: light.touch.matters, crisp (creative industry scientific program), creative, P3i: all focusing on an artistic and design driven material innovation. Be aware, a lot of these projects are drawing conclusions. Hence, creating plenty of possibilities to start valorizing the created knowledge and develop new business.
Flexible device revolution enabled by nanotechnology
We are going through the flexible device revolution making the border between physical and digital disappear. The hardware side of the industry used to be static, but now with design and artists it is becoming stretchable and flexible. New material properties create new values: transparency, color changing, conducting, transformable, lightweight, harvesting and storage energy. Nanotechnology enablers play an important part in such. Nokia made a very nice slide about it and has a magnificent prototype: IHO. Take some time to examine it! There will be a switch from rectangular structures to organic structures: new free or even floating shapes. The future is not linear. Shape will become a living thing. It is around the corner. Hopefully, someone will bring it into the room.
Battery life time
All that lightening. But doesn’t that require energy? Yes, the biggest heard challenge indeed is the battery life time. Current batteries have a fixed shape, making them almost impossible for wearable application. Therefore LG is working on new type of battery. The cable type: foldable and bendable. LG started to develop this innovation, because it was driven by the need of a flexible battery. Now they are searching for possible application, which can be very diverse from textile, to the medical sector or in google glasses. At the same time, concept combining solar panels with fabrics were presented, so you can (re)charge your device en route.
The billion dollar solution that isn’t there yet : the person that will invent how to transmit energy from one place to another cable free. Think of Bluetooth for energy.
Big Data stimulating DIY
Besides research in universities and large R&D labs, the DIY movement (Do It Yourself) is rapidly growing: people more and more educate themselves and start designing solutions to restyle or even generate new solutions. This movement is supported by open source and creative commons products. Industry and hackers are supporting it by unleashing codes as a resource. DIY is creating added value through the interaction with big data. Data provides the possibility to let user design own things in clothes and experiment with it, creating direct contact between app and textile: interconnect and communicate. No excuses anymore. Complete tutorials and instruction movies from Lynne Brunning on e-Textiles can be found here.
How about the real futuristic visions? I kept on wondering, will there still be clothing’s? The second layer on our skin, how will it look in 2060? Perhaps we would have a plasma second skin gear which with lightening effects or hologram will create artificial design in all forms and will be able to adopt to all colors. Fool the naked eye. At the same time, it gives us insight in our medical parameters, shows the news on your chest and adjusts to weather circumstances (becoming thicker in cold weather and thinner in warm weather; like the feathers of penguin (learning from nature: biomimicry – because nature is the great teacher)). No more summer and winter collection, just one collection that will be suitable anytime, anywhere, any age. And why knit and weave: it so traditionally. How about printing clothes, right at home.
My imagination is taking a ride with me. Forgive me. It proves that attending conferences is still important in this area of various digital means of learning. The human touch, the discussion, the vibe and sensation of a shared wow feeling. This was triggered at large by some visionary people that took the stage. They featured funny concepts like the ‘electrocuting Yes, but …chair to prevent negative mentality preventing the creative process, touching concepts about social robots: helping you learn by playing with fabrics, and provoking concepts. Clearly you could see how artists are exploring the range from nature to technology. In the words of Daan Roosegaarde: ‘work on technological poetry’. “We need to connect poetry with pragmatism in order to make it happen.” The new world is unknown to all of us, but all have ideas about this future world shifting more and more from analogue to digital. He envisioned that garments will start interact with the environment: health, food, communication. You will come into a shop and products having allergic ingredients for you will be dimed. Nokia presented the futuristic IHO (electronic skin): a human extension seamlessly connecting body and senses to cloud computing 24/7. It uses nanowire sensing to monitor body senses, combines body monitoring with multiple senses and 3D sensation. It’s not there yet, but the nanotechnology developments will makes it possible. IHO will be a device to record your life.
Getting back to my day dreaming, Tapani Jokinen (Nokia Design) answer on this is: “Everything is feasible, it just takes a certain amount of time to get there. Today it is more about our imagination, there is always a way to realize it.” Imagination is an instrument of survival.
The conference also highlighted some insights with regards to the innovation process and the importance of user-driven design. Only technology will not create a product. Be aware that a prototype is the way to achieve an industrial production, but not the end goal. At least as important are technical feasibility to scale up, costs and availability (production time is very important in fashion) and the Net-promoter score (will you recommend it to a friend). For this a good teamwork is required between technology, business and user. In order to make that work, storytelling and genuineness are central. There is a story that a products can evoke in the life of people. When you are able to tell that, you will generate engagement. For this reason it is very important to know what motivates people: design around you, not for you. In other words, the end user design about comfort experience and measured discomfort. In the new virtual world interaction with customers (how it connects) is very important, leading to questions as : what effect will intimate technology have? How will people react when it comes very close to self-expression, self-identity and self-projection into a system. It means talking about relationships- in other words closeness. How does a product give you confidence, give you the idea of being in control and be beautiful in it? This is where wearable technology can play an important part: Wearable’s as a connection to society
Innovation is about creating links: it is a west side story. Bringing two not connected ‘sectors’ together: Let them collide and see what romance can happen. In the end, creating the future is about finding a common love to innovate in order to survive. Together you create new everlasting stories. The first thing is to set the aspiration, the vision. With stepping stones you can gradually get there.
A last remark on innovation from the Arena Group “it is not how you start, it’s how you finish”. Indeed, innovation is iteration and experimentation. You learn, adopt and recreate. Update, adapt and play. But in the end what counts are the results: the new products and services that change our life for the better. The Smart Fabrics Conference showed that we can expect a lot of new products in the near future.