Editorial: textiles and tech-styles

"What do you mean, 'They don’t look too bad'? Were you really expecting them to look bad?"

We're looking at the result of our photoshoot, and my picture editor is understandably cross. I think I've said the wrong thing, or it's not come across right and I have to do some quick explaining. "I'm not doubting your skills... I was just expecting the clothes to look, well, more naff."

I clearly need to explain myself further, because the hole I'm digging myself into seems to be getting deeper. Look: there have been exceptions, but most wearable electronics have looked at best functional and at worst totally geeky. You'd only wear them if your job meant you absolutely had to (such as helmets that let firemen see through smoke) or you lack all social awareness (I'm thinking of the keyboard that straps to your arm - social suicide if ever I saw it).

There are some types of clothing that seem destined to always be in the 'functional-but-embarrassing' category. When my wife went to buy a cycle helmet, the assistant asked her what colour or make she'd like. "I don't know, but I'd like one that doesn't make me look like a prat, please."

"I'm sorry, madam," replied the assistant, "but we don't sell that sort." See what I mean?

So that's the reason I've been expecting our studio pictures to come out as 'interesting but quirky' - a snapshot of how far wearable electronics have to go to be acceptable to fashion-led consumers. I'm happy to say, I was completely wrong - the clothes actually look great! Judge for yourself in our cover story and photographic special.

Of course, fashion has been a key driver for certain technologies. Mobile phones have long been shaped by fashion and fad. Be seen with the wrong phone and you're consigned to the credibility dump forever. Rebecca Pool looks at the reality behind a Nokia concept phone that literally changes shape from one fashion accessory to another. It's a nanotechnology-based idea that's still a long way off, but that hasn't stopped it becoming a hit on YouTube. And, as BT futurologist Jonathan Mitchener points out in his column, more recent iPods have been designed to be worn around the neck.

Electronic devices now infuse the very fabric of our lives - they're on our desks, in our cars, kitchens, toys and pockets - so why not work them into the fabric of our clothes? Cost is no longer much of an issue, and engineers have solved problems like how to design them to survive a machine wash.

Most of the products in our photoshoot are available now, but we've also shot a few designs by students, like the dresses on the cover by fashion design graduate Rachel Bagley. They have solar panels to power iPods as well as controls built in. The student projects of today are by the real product designers of tomorrow.

The applications of clothes-based electronics will also evolve. Siân Harris looks at the latest challenges and breakthroughs and finds that the future of wearable electronics goes way beyond fashion to more 'serious' uses. One day we will take the electronic element in our clothes for granted, whether it's there to provide power for our gadgets, monitor our health or just keep our headphone wires out of the way.

So, I suppose we can declare technology and textiles officially betrothed. Those with an eye for cutting-edge electronics and those who are more at home with the cut on a pair of trousers are going to have to start getting along, and if they can manage it, then we're all going to benefit.

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