The future of wearable tech: interactive dresses that track stares, heart rate and more

Fashion designers, not satisfied with the current state of wearable tech – often just wristbands and watches – are working to integrate sensors and software into stylish clothing. Smart fabric is opening up new possibilities

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 December, 2016, 5:09pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 December, 2016, 5:35pm

When Google’s head-mounted optical display, Google Glass, made an appearance on the catwalks at a 2012 Diane Von Furstenberg show, it signalled the beginning of an era: wearable tech in fashion.

Since then, numerous brands have attempted to make their mark in this burgeoning category by developing stylish wristbands and watches. There are even T-shirts that can track your heartbeat.

While many, such as the Apple watch, have been successful from a technological standpoint – and reasonably popular – those in fashion continue to question their aesthetic appeal to consumers.

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Merging fashion and technology isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. Many designers, including Turkish Cypriot Hussein Chalayan, have used technology as a tool to both question and advance the form and function of clothing. In 2000 he launched remote-control dresses with moveable flaps and he’s since experimented with animatronics and other technology to create video dresses embedded with LEDs or coffee tables that transform into a skirt. For his recent spring/summer 2017 collection, for example, he partnered with Intel to create glasses equipped with sensors that measure biometric data such as heart rate and stress levels.

As impressive and newsworthy as many of these creations are, they have yet to address a fundamental problem: how can we integrate technology seamlessly into fashion in a way that is easy to use, relevant and pretty enough to appeal to the so-called “fashion elites”?

The answer, it seems, lies in the advent of “smart” fabrics that physically integrate microelectronic technologies into the garments themselves.

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“Like everything, it’s all about timing,” says Sophie Hackford, the former director of Wired Consulting. “As sophisticated camera lenses, sensors, gyroscopes and chips get more powerful and cheaper, the possibilities for ‘computing’ become more interesting. Instead of having a ‘computer’ – be it a smartwatch, phone, or laptop – we are entering a moment where computing becomes pervasive. It becomes the services it provides, not the specific device that you focus on.

“I don’t think smart fabrics are per se more attractive, I just think that they are a natural step on from where we are today, where computing and power becomes a distributed service rather than an object.”

Smart fabrics and clothing are a concept relatively new to the fashion world – Ralph Lauren was one of the first big brands to experiment with the idea in 2014 when it developed T-shirts that monitored breathing, heart rate and stress for the US Open tennis championships.

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Earlier this year, denim giant Levi’s partnered with Google to launch a “smart” jacket that will land in stores early next year. Named the “Commuter Jacket”, it features jacquard yarn technology with a conductive fabric interwoven into the original fabric, which creates an interactive patch that senses touch, pressure and even the hand’s position. Thanks to the addition of a Bluetooth-enabled loop on the jacket’s cuff, wearers are then able to communicate with their phones and complete tasks such as answering calls, playing music and accessing Google maps.

Originally designed for bikers, the jacket can be washed (although the Bluetooth cuff needs to be removed first) and worn like any other garment. Apparently there are plans to apply the technology to athletic and business clothing.

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“The possibilities for downloading data into such materials is really exciting. From surgeons to cyclists to musicians, having a new – more human – two-way interface with the machines is going to be explosive,” says Hackford.

And it’s not just big corporations that are experimenting. In the luxury designer realm, Dutch designer Iris Van Herpen comes to mind. She first made headlines in 2010 with her intricately detailed, 3D- printed garments. Today she is known for innovative garments and materials created in collaboration with architects, computer designers, scientists and engineers. With Jolan van der Wiel, she explored magnetically grown dresses and shoes, which use magnetic materials to create a garment’s form. Future projects include leather grown from cow cells and textiles that change shape when in contact with heat and water. Looking ahead, she is exploring 4D and robotic printing, and nanorobotics – which uses insect-sized drones to knit fabrics.

Also noteworthy is Canada-based Chinese fashion designer and university professor Ying Gao. Her work combines urban design, architecture and media design, and she is known for experimenting with sensory technologies such as computational systems, motors, sensors, pneumatics and embedded electronics to create garments that are playful and interactive.

“I’ve been working as a fashion designer for 18 years, but I started to be interested in new technologies and media arts while I was completing a masters degree in interactive multimedia 14 years ago. I believe that fashion, in order to be meaningful, needs to be both radical and deeply experimental,” she says.

“Fashion designers have known for a long time that they are working with a fleeting material that will never be timeless. However, the integration of electronic technology seems to modify the creative process, both in terms of the surface and the structure of garments.”

Her recent creations include dresses embedded with eye-tracking technology that responds to an observer’s gaze by activating tiny motors which move parts of the dress to create changing patterns. Another is made from photoluminescent thread that glows in the dark. Thanks to their hi-tech wizardry, they are frequently exhibited in museums and galleries across the world, including the Joyce Gallery in Paris.

Of course, all this tech is still very far away, but if it ever gets here on a mass level it will pose challenges in terms of privacy concerns and product safety. The ends, however, will hopefully justify the means.

“I see this as an insanely creative moment to experiment with new technologies and new human conventions – how will we interact with each other, with connectivity being everywhere? Once these smart wearable technologies add more to our lives than just another watch/fitness tracker/headphone interface, then I can see them integrating seamlessly, like the smartphone did,” says Hackford.