Unlike many wearables that are strapped on the user’s arms or legs for pure functionality, smart clothing technology is giving rise to comfortable garment wearables that are tailored for form as much as function.
When most people think about wearables, they think of IoT devices that are worn by users on their bodies that can monitor the health and help fight against addictions. However, the wearables market has expanded much beyond just these devices. The wearables market is extending beyond healthcare and fitness into multiple other industries. One such industry that is currently being disrupted by wearables is the textile industry. By implementing the use of nanotechnology in the textile industry, textile manufacturers are creating garments of the future. These garments are termed as ‘smart clothes’ and are made with the help of smart clothing technology. Smart clothing can be explained as wearable garments that function similar to other IoT wearables and can sense and respond to particular stimuli like pressure or temperature. Smart clothing allows electronic devices such as IoT devices, lights, and small computing devices to be embedded into them, and are made of different fabrics, as follows:
Types of Fabrics that can be Used in Smart Clothing
All types of fabrics cannot be used to make smart clothes. Smart clothing requires special fabrics that can allow IoT devices to monitor different environmental and health parameters and allow communication among these devices that are embedded in them.
Smart clothes manufacturers use threads that are made up of metal fibers to allow interconnection between IoT sensors. Metal fibers are either created by shaving the edge of thin metal sheets or with bundle drawing technology. Metal fibers can help IoT devices to monitor electrical physiological activities like electrocardiogram (ECG) by acting as electrodes.
Conductive elements can be embedded in traditional inks that are used for printing and applied to specific areas of garments to make them conductive. Elements like copper, silver, gold, nickel, and others can help improve the conductivity of garments and can be used as switches to activate IoT devices circuits in smart clothes.
Coating with Nano-Particles
Usual fabrics that are used to make garments can be coated with nano-particles. Nano-particles have many benefits, including micro bacteria-killing, stain resistance, and waterproofing. For instance, nanosilver particles release positive ions that can stop microbial functioning and kill them. Furthermore, silica nanoparticles can create enough surface tension to ensure that liquid particles form beads and roll over the garments instead of being soaked into it.
Chromic materials can change their color based on external conditions. These materials are mostly used for fashion to create entertaining color-changing designs as a response to conditions like heat or electricity. According to the type of stimuli, chromic materials can be further classified as photochromic, thermochromic, electrochromic, piezochromic, and solvatochromic that responds to light, heat, electricity, pressure, and liquid or gas, respectively. Many other fabrics can help create smart clothes. Based on the fabric used and its function, smart clothes have found a wide range of applications in many industries.
Applications of Smart Clothing
The potential and benefits of smart clothing have made it beneficial in applications across many industries.
Similar to other IoT devices, smart clothing can help keep track of an individual’s physical activities and monitor vitals levels. Wearing smart clothes will eliminate the need for frequent visits to clinics as people can proactively monitor and take care of their health themselves. Monitoring sensors can also be beneficial during pregnancy. What do you think of when someone says “life belt”? A buoyant ring that is carried in ships to help someone in an emergency in water is what would probably come to your mind. But, smart clothing can help create life belts that can be worn around the abdomen by a pregnant woman. Life belts use IoT sensors to monitor the health of both mother and fetus. For instance, the PregSense monitor is a life belt that can not only monitor the mother’s health but also project the image of the fetus and measure its heart rate.
Military and Defense
The environment of war zones consists of air contaminated by the hazardous gases emitted from gunfire and bomb blasts. IoT sensors in smart clothes can determine the presence and level of hazardous gas in the environment and allow the military to mitigate the harm caused by hazardous gases efficiently. Smart clothes can also detect signs and amount of blood loss of soldiers due to minor injuries and send information to medical professionals so that they can take appropriate actions.
Sports enthusiasts have for long been using IoT wearables around their arms or legs to monitor their fitness and other health parameters. But, smart clothing will eliminate the need to wear extra IoT sensors on bodies as they will be embedded in their regular garments. Sportswear is designed to provide comfort to people during workouts or physical activities. Smart clothes can further enhance the comfort of sportswear. Australian engineers have developed a bionic bra that can change according to the movement of breasts. The conductive ink fibers mentioned earlier can help create such bras. The smart bra can tighten or loosen its straps according to the movement of breasts, preventing any pain or sag. Despite the many benefits and applications of smart clothing technology, there are some challenges that are holding back enterprises and the public from the mass adoption of smart clothes.
Challenges in the Mass Adoption of Smart Clothing
Consumer concerns like price and durability of smart clothes and technical issues like volume and complexity of unstructured data are some of the challenges faced by smart clothing technologies.
Price and Durability
The cost of embedding IoT technology into garments increases the manufacturing price of garments, making them costly. Many consumers will become ready to purchase smart garments if the prices decrease to reasonable levels. And despite the high price, there is no durability and reliability of smart clothes. For instance, smart clothes require IoT sensors to function, and washing IoT devices may cause their failure. For smart clothes to be durable and reliable, it should be embedded with IoT devices that are water-resistant and can be washed.
There are different types of sensors that can be embedded in smart clothes, but their accuracy cannot be determined before their use. And, once embedded in garments to test accuracy, changing IoT sensors would mean tearing the garments and again recreating them. This means that the failure or inaccuracy of any single component of smart clothes will fail the entire garment and increased cost of manufacturing.
Most of the wearables have charging facilities as batteries cannot be completely relied upon. And, charging clothes does sound weird. If batteries are embedded, then again, it would raise durability issues similar to IoT sensors. Battery life depends on various factors like DOD effect, temperature effect, and many others. If the battery life is shortened due to any of these factors, then the life of smart clothing’s functionality will also reduce, and they would become ordinary clothes from smart clothes.
Smart clothes as of now are not very popular, and only a few of them created by fashion giants like Levi’s, Tommy Hilfiger, Under Armour, and a few others, are being widely used. The most popular among these smart clothes is the recently emerged Levi’s Jacquard smart jacket. These smart jackets allow the wearer to operate a smartphone remotely by swiping on his or her sleeves with the help of gesture recognition. Not only fashion giants, but also other fashion companies should start making smart clothes to provide a wide variety of options to the users and encouraging them to use smart clothes.