Haute tech couture

Haute tech couture

Our exclusive photoshoot of the latest wearable technology.

Wearable technology is not new. The watch, invented in the 16th century, is still the most common example of technology that can be worn as an accessory, either strung ostentatiously about the middle of a Victorian gentleman's waistcoat, or strapped to the wrist of a time-wary marathon runner.

Wearable technology, however, has grown ambitious. Advances in materials, wireless, computing, sensors and electronics mean engineers are now able to integrate electronics directly into clothing. Systems can now interact with each other, enabling the most innovative applications for sport, fashion, medical and work wear.

This requires engineers - more at home solving technical issues in industrial design - to apply their intellect to the less logic-driven world of fashion.

A select group of engineering companies and fashion houses are starting to collaborate to produce wearable electronic garments that are as revolutionary as the first fob watch was 400 years ago.

A sporting chance

If wearable electronics are going make it big in the lively fashion marketplace, the companies involved will have to have to choose their niche carefully. As a readymade fusion of fashion and technology, sportswear looks like it will offer the most natural commercial market for wearable electronic products.

Heavyweight players Nike and Adidas have already tested the water with apparel that can be wirelessly paired with electronic devices to enable electrocardiograph (ECG) monitoring. This can be sent to devices such as the popular Polar heart rate monitor.

Numetrex, a brand of wearable electronics company Textronics, has developed a textile-based ECG electrode, which offers a more comfortable way of connecting to exercise monitoring systems than the usual adhesive electrodes and chest bands commonly used in gyms.

With the sports market conquered, the next likely market would, according to Textronics CEO Stacey Burr, be the medical area.

"We have already reached into fitness and sports markets, where heart-rate monitoring is used widely to enhance performance and to ensure safety," she says. The company was granted US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) clearance to use its devices in health monitoring in March.

"We're offering the medical community a more comfortable and less cumbersome solution that can improve patient compliance by eliminating skin irritation and other discomforts that are commonly experienced during ECG monitoring, especially in extended wear applications."

The technology is knitted directly into the fabrics that can be stretched and are machine washable. In addition to ECG, Textronics hopes to use the technology for cardiac event recording, testing for stress, trans-telephonic pacemaker monitors, and respiration sensing devices.

"We can now bring our ECG electrode technology to the healthcare market, where advances in technology are enabling people to monitor their biofeedback from the comfort of their own homes," claims Burr.

Fashion

Fashion and leisure wear is another important consumer market, and here both engineers and fashion designers have demonstrated great ingenuity - from haute-tech fashion to everyday wear.

For example, Di Mainstone is the artist-in-residence at V2 in Rotterdam. Her ShareWear dress (p20) is constructed from interlocking slats of high-density foam, which connect using magnetic elements that turn on pools of light. The LED light sources are hidden in a halo style hat and in a compartment in the skirt of the dress.

Rachel Bagley, a fashion design graduate from South East Essex College, created a collection to show how wearable electronics can contribute to reducing a wearer's carbon footprint. Solar panels sewn in the dress are designed to catch the sunlight from different angles as the dress moves. These can be used to power an iPod or other portable device. Also, she incorporated an ElekTex touch pad from Qio Systems which can be connected to an iPod or MP3 player.

The ElekTex touch pad (p23) is by far the most advanced wearable electronic garment that is currently in the marketplace. Note how the touch panel is integrated into the sleeve hoodie which retains its flexibility. What's more, it's completely machine washable.

The 3rd Space FPS Vest (p21) uses pneumatic technology to simulate bullet hits, punches, body slams, explosions and much more. It can even simulate the precise direction and force of bullet fire and replicate fear-inducing finger taps on your shoulders.

It connects via USB to a computer or console running first person shooter-style games and the eight pneumatic cells (which are embedded in various spots around the vest) incorporate a special compressor, which fires air into the cells using appropriate levels of force to accurately simulate the on-screen action.

The T-equalizer t-shirt (p20) responds to audible sounds in its environment and displays it with an inbuilt graphic equaliser embedded on the front. Similarly, the 8-bit dynamic Life Shirts feature hearts, which illuminate when it detects the proximity of the wearer's partner - assuming she is also wearing a Life Shirt.

Although many of these applications appear whimsical at first glance, there is a more serious element. With developers simply dipping their toe in the water with fashion, it's certain that we will see more mission-critical applications for the fields of health, safety, medicine and warfare. 

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