May 28, 2014

    Wearable tech is just a stitch away

    MY T-SHIRT tells me things.

    My heart rate: 62 beats a minute. And my breathing: 17 breaths a minute.

    My T-shirt is connected to me and also to the Internet. So along with an iPhone app, it can remind me to relax and chill.

    The T-shirt I am wearing was made by OMsignal of Montreal. It has sensors that are supposed to pick up all sorts of data about me - the aforementioned vital signs, plus how many calories I burn and even how stressed I am.

    OMsignal is a part of a new breed of young companies focusing on wearable technology. These are products made out of biometric materials, or smart textiles.

    Many people wear fitness bands that can monitor their health. Whether those products deliver all they promise is questionable. But why wear a wristband when you are already wearing clothes? Weave some sensors into the fabric, and you have one accessory fewer to worry about.

    "Smart clothing is easy because it's the only wearable medium you've already been wearing your whole life," said Stephane Marceau, co-founder of OMsignal. "In a decade, every piece of apparel you buy will have some sort of biofeedback sensor built in it."

    Many challenges must be overcome first, not the least of which is price. OMsignal shirts start at US$80 (S$100), but they also need a module - which powers the shirt and talks to its sensors - that costs US$120. But the shirt is machine washable.

    "The leap that you have to make from a prototype or small-lot sizes of these wearables to an affordable mass-market product is pretty significant," said Jonathan Gaw, research manager for IDC Research. "The price is going to have to come way down before it becomes a product for most consumers."

    Mr Gaw said that wearable apparel would be used first for fitness, wellness and medical applications by a select group of consumers. He warned that it could be slow going for most people.

    But Mr Marceau of OMsignal said consumers were getting to a point where they want more information about themselves.

    "The first cars were completely blind. Then you had a gas gauge. Then a speedometer. Now you can't imagine a car without these things," he said. "Smart clothing is starting to do the same thing for the human body."

    Most smart textile products use conductive yarns that can transmit electrical signals. The sensors woven into these materials are either so small you cannot see them or so flexible you do not notice them.

    While many of these garments require a battery pack of sorts, some are experimenting with applications in which a smartphone can transmit power and Internet access to sensors, and screens that are attached to the clothing.

    "This type of fabric, until now, was a laboratory experiment, and no companies were able to develop something that would be a mass-scale product," said Eliane Fiolet, co-founder of Ubergizmo, the technology website.

    "Now you have companies that are claiming to figure out a manufacturing process that is viable to introduce these garments at scale."

    Ms Fiolet said incorporating sensors into clothing, rather than wristbands, made sense. Clothing, after all, covers more of the body.

    These sorts of device are already emerging out of labs.

    Cityzen Sciences, based in Lyon, France, makes T-shirts that have microsensors embedded in the fabric. These sensors can monitor a person's temperature, heart rate and location.

    The company won the award for the most innovative new product at this year's International CES.

    Sensilk, based in San Francisco, is making a smart bra with sensors to track a wearer's fitness.

    And the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has funded a number of projects to make wearable computerised clothing for soldiers.

    The possibilities do not end there. A number of universities and research labs have experimented with wearable technology that can help blind people navigate city streets, such as gloves that vibrate when a user needs to make a turn.