Lately, the term “wearables” appears more and more in our conversations. Usually we are describing a smart watch that extends our mobile experience, or a bracelet that tracks physical activity. Sure, those are things we wear, but what about something with computing power that we actually put on as clothing? Now that is something that is really a wearable. This next wave of wearable moves technology beyond accessories to clothing we wear, furniture we use, vehicles we are transported in and art that we enjoy.
This is made possible through smart fabrics. Smart fabrics are textiles with embedded electronics that bring computing power even further from our devices into everyday items. This technology poses new challenges for designers. Not only is the form factor very different from screen devices, it is right up against the user’s skin.
This is an interesting topic for me. While I have done design work with smart watches, wearable integration and for the Internet of Things (IoT) devices, I haven’t worked with smart fabrics yet. So I reached out to people in the community who have more insight than I do, and asked for their thoughts to share in the future of this technology. This is more of a forward-looking piece than my usual experience-reports, so I will likely get some of it wrong. However, a lot of you have been asking me to weigh on on this topic. Furthermore, the low impact, high value principles behind designing for this technology are important to take into account as we move forward. We might have a limited window of opportunity to get it right.
In my last article on wearables Designing For Smartwatches And Wearables To Enhance Real-Life Experience, I wrote about designing experiences that integrate smartwatches and activity trackers. I mentioned that we have two futures for technology: in one, we are distracted away from our real-world experiences, increasingly focused on technology and missing out on what is going on around us; in the other, technology enhances our life experiences by providing a needed boost at just the right time. Understanding good distractions as well as unwelcome distractions are vital to consider when you are designing for something that you will have right up against your skin for hours at a time on a daily basis. With smart fabrics, we have even more potential to cause harm by distracting people from their lives, or to bring even better by using powerful technology to enhance our real-life experiences.
As I spoke with people who design with smart fabrics and similar technology, a common theme emerged: smart fabrics aren’t quite there yet for mass market applications. There are some niche players leading the way, but nothing has captured a significant mind share. That’s because it’s difficult to bring computing and electronics, power sources, sensors and wireless connectivity to fabrics without making them bulky, impractical, and expensive. However, a lot of great organizations with brilliant people are working hard to create reliable, cost-effective smartfabric technology, so the day will arrive soon. When it does, those of us who are technology designers will be designing digital experiences that are completely different from the screen experiences we are accustomed to. It’s important to understand that we are designing a digital experience that supplements a user’s real-world experience.
Know Your Design Material
One way to think about smartfabrics is that they are Internet of Things (IoT) devices. In his talk Magical UX and the Internet of Things , mobile UX expert Josh Clark defined IoT devices as “Sensors + Smarts + Connectivity”. A “thing” is anything at all that we can put technology into. “Sensors” are what make mobile devices and wearables truly special, they can sense movement, direction, and in some cases even biometric data.
“Smarts” refers to computing power and electronics that makes sense of data, and supports inputs and outputs into the system. “Connectivity” allows us to get information from the thing onto smartphones and other devices. It is one thing to have a wearable that measures or allows for inputs and outputs, but if it can only work by itself and not communicate with other computers, it has limited value. Sensors, smarts and connectivity depend on power sources to operate, which means they need batteries to make them work.
Smartfabrics are textiles with IoT-style technology woven into them. Some technologies added to textiles are sensors, wireless, batteries, location services (such as geo-positioning tech), transducers, bio monitors, lighting and displays. New kinds of fabrics blur lines further with electronics in the development of conductive thread for inputs, and stretchy displays, circuit boards and wiring embedded right into the fibers or printed on the fabric. In some cases you can barely tell the difference between smart fabrics and traditional textiles.
IoT devices provide visibility and control into just about anything we can stuff technology in. Paul Hanson, CEO of IoT technology company bbotx points out that they “help create enhanced situational awareness.” In other words, IoT devices can help us extend our own capabilities by providing visibility and control into our environments, our interactions with other people and systems, and within ourselves. For example, health monitoring with wearable IoT devices can provide constant flows of data so the wearer can make better health decisions.
With IoT technology, this insight is also available to health experts. What was once a sporadic activity – that required an appointment, specialized equipment and expertise – can now be an ongoing, continuous activity. These systems provide a degree of insight into a patient’s day to day conditions that was impossible before. Patients get visibility into their current condition at any time, and experts can closely monitor changes and recommend treatment options.
Doug Hagedorn, CEO of Tactalis describes two different kinds of smart fabrics: passive and active. Passive smart fabrics are designed towards monitoring and gathering information to for use within a system. Active smart fabrics react immediately to stimulus in the environment and may change physical aspects such color, shape or their digital behavior. Passive smartfabrics have enormous potential in areas such as health and fitness, while active smartfabrics could reduce the need for multiple articles of clothing that have one particular purpose and design.
Fabrics and Materials
If you are a techie like me who is in virtual worlds all the time, integrating software with real world physical objects can be a challenge. Textiles are commonplace enough to appear simple, but they are subtly complex. From ancient times, we have used animal and plant-based materials to clothe ourselves for protection and warmth. Eventually, we brought in metals and other minerals as materials. (The most obvious example of this is medieval armour such as chainmail.)
“The key, as a designer is to know exactly what kind of smart fabric you require to solve a problem for your users.”
As technology advanced further, we moved beyond natural resources and started making synthetic fabrics. Today, textiles are sophisticated combinations natural, synthetic, mineral and other materials. We take them for granted because they are all around us, and the complexity is hidden from us. The choice of material when designing clothing or other textile goods brings with it different strengths and weaknesses for warmth or cooling, comfort or sturdiness, and care when dirty.
To get more out of a particular fabric, we combine different materials to make it even more useful for a particular purpose. Some interesting examples of fabric fused with technology are:
- Kevlar used in fabrics for protective wear
- Gore-Tex Water repellant technology to keep us warm and dry
- Nomex provides flame resistance
- Spandex provides support for athletic wear and underwear
- Conductive thread in our mittens and gloves allows us to use our touchscreens in the cold.
When you weave these powerful fibers into fabric for use in clothing, it allows the wearer to do things that were previously difficult or impossible. In most cases, you wouldn’t even know that complex technology is in your clothing unless you looked at the label. Similarly, as electronics become smaller, they become a part of the purpose of the clothing. They fade into the fabric so that we don’t even notice them. Smartfabrics have the potential to allow us to do much more with clothing and other objects than we can with traditional fabrics. The key as a designer is to know exactly what kind of smart fabric you require to solve a problem for your users.
Part 2 of this 3 part series, Jonathan Kohl will look at smart fabric design potential.