How Smart Clothing Poses an Answer to Social Challenges

What if we could solve social challenges with a solution that works intuitively? A solution with a human touch, that helps people no matter where they go. Smart clothing harbours precisely that potential.

Smart clothing can measure biometric data almost instinctively and barely noticeable, while the wearer feels comfortable and secure. And, it is worn so close to the body, that it delivers data of exceptional accuracy. We as TNO at Holst Centre use our expertise in hybrid printed electronics to create smart clothing that improves human health and wellbeing. We focus on medical and defence industries, in particular, combining wearable design with human-centred technology.

The global health care system is under strain. Our Dutch system as well. Besides the fact that in the past years’ several governments imposed large budget cuts, our society is confronted with an increasingly older population and a shortage of health care professionals. People also experience more and more stress because of demanding working environments, and a growing sense of loneliness in this digital age. These challenges call for innovations that alleviate the burden of our caregivers and pose a solution to the social issue of stress.

Using technology to bring comfort instead of more and more distraction 

Hybrid printed electronics pave the way for a new generation of electronic applications that contribute to solutions for a whole range of societal issues. Our MYSA shirt, for example, can help reduce the workload of caregivers by measuring the biometric data of its wearer and reduces stress by delivering intuitive haptic feedback that gives breathing instructions.

Printed electronics are thin, stretchable, flexible, and mouldable, which is ideal for the design and manufacturing of smart clothing. The technology combines printed circuits and sensors with traditional components like actuators, LEDs, or chips. Fashion design is the key to incorporate tech in comfortable garments that look smart as well.

After years of pioneering with this technology and experimenting with fabric, garment fit, and design, TNO at Holst Centre gets close to its goal: Bringing smart clothing to the market. Better yet, there are already some promising concepts that we are testing right now. Rooted in the fashion industry with a background as a designer, I became involved with TNO at Holst Centre to help bring technology into well-designed and wearable smart clothing items that serve their purpose. They help to support people in their daily lives by unobtrusively measuring and analysing biodata, and giving feedback in an engaging and actionable manner.

Electronics as an intuitive part of our daily attire

We use clothing to protect ourselves, to communicate, to feel comfortable, to cover ourselves, and to express our identity. The role of the garment and the experience it offers to its wearer depends on the moment itself. As a designer, I want to integrate hybrid printed electronics into clothing in an intimate and personal way. I want to make it an intuitive part of a daily attire and of added value to the wearer. To achieve that, I also take into account which kind of fabric, colour, and fit complements the overall experience and role of the garment best.

Why integrate electronics in clothing and not just keep it in the palm of our hands, around our necks, or around our wrists? Smart clothing is capable of collecting data and giving feedback to its wearer in a way wearable accessories and mobile apps can’t. We wear garments almost the entire day and during almost every activity. The fabric covers most of our body and touches our skin, so it can measure vital signs more accurately while also providing the comfort of a second skin. We as TNO at Holst Centre we envision a world of possibilities with this technology.

A synergy between engineering and design

Where engineers traditionally focus on developing electronic applications and systems, designers concentrate on the design of garments and their use. We merge these two worlds together to create viable solutions that can be used in peoples’ everyday lives. We seamlessly integrate technology into clothing. This synergy between engineering and design makes for smart clothing that offers practical answers to social issues in new, exciting ways.

In my next blog, I will illustrate this approach further with tangible examples like the MYSA shirt that gives haptic feedback to help people regulate stress.

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Pauline van Dongen

Designer and researcher in fashion and technology. Forbes Top 50 Women in Tech. Founder of studio Pauline van Dongen