Last November, Apple Watch made its print debut gracing the cover of Vogue China on model Liu Wen’s wrist. A year before, Google Glass was featured in a 12-page spread in American Vogue. Pairing the $1,500 headset with a $2,300 turtleneck was a blatant reminder that Glass, with its rarified limited release, was a luxury product. Luxury is about visibility, and right now wearables are mostly wristbands and headsets, positioning themselves among the high-end, mid-range, and low-end classifications that watches and eyeglasses have had for years. Even Swarovski has carved out their niche in the marketplace of the quantified self. But as smart textiles are poised to enter the market place, data collection will become much more invisible, and its ethical complications potentially much more obscured. Maybe luxury will be less about being seen and more about the privilege of not being seen?
Smart textiles span a range of different materials. During a “Beyond Wearables: Future Fabrics and Fashion Design” talk at SXSW Interactive in March, Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman, who teaches at Pratt University where she also directs the IMARI Lab (Intelligent Materials Applied Research and Innovation) and who’s the founder of Interwoven Design Group, explained, “There are traditional textiles that are re-engineered to have different properties; there are performance textiles that can react to the environment; and then the highest level of smart textiles are ones that react, process, and change or grow. They can transform. They can receive and store data. They can receive and store energy—all these things that are almost inconceivable.” The last category, these are the fabrics of the future that have the potential to totally disrupt how we think about what we wear and how we shop.
“The biggest innovations,” Pailes-Friedman explained during the panel, “are creating really, really small computational devices that can be embedded in the fibre and the fibre can be spun to yarns—blended or singular yarns—that can then either be knitted or woven. And that’s when we are going to start seeing data that can be collected and stored in the fabric.”
Computers, which only decades ago were the size of entire rooms, are getting smaller and smaller. Moore’s Law describes the co-founder of Intel Gordon Moore’s 1965 observation that the number of transistors which could fit in one square inch doubled every year, and he postulated that it would continue to do so for the foreseeable future. “Now it’s not about square inches but nanometers,” Abe Burmeister, the founder performance wear clothing company Outlier, explained during the SXSW panel. “If Moore’s law holds up we are going to get these insanely fast computers down to the nano level. We are going to hit a point pretty soon where we have full-on super computers woven into whatever.”
Right now, the size of batteries are more of a challenge to wearable tech than the size of computational technology. “Battery technology has been a huge log jam. Batteries don’t follow Moore’s law,” noted Burmeister. As computers continue to get faster, however, they take less energy to do the same amount of processing and therefore require less battery power.
“I think that’s the biggest thing we have to overcome in textiles: how do we create fabrics that not only have these amazing computational components but are also self-generating,” said Pailes-Friedman. Another possible solution is that the textiles could get energy from the user’s body movement. “Through haptic technology,” she explained, hypothesizing about devices in the near future, “your body could generate the power that it needs to power the device or the textile or whatever garment you’re wearing.”
Haptic is a bit of a buzzword right now in tech, from haptic polymers in smart textiles to haptic sex toys in the adult industry. Haptic just means of or relating to a sense of touch, and in consumer electronics, this means devices that have sensory-driven feedback or tactile non-verbal communication. One example of a haptic device that bridges the gap between wearables and teledildonics is FUNDAWEAR, vibrating underpants for couples in long-distance relationships.
Billie Whitehouse, FUNDAWEAR’s designer and the founder of Wearable Experiments (We:eX), explained during the SXSW panel that haptic polymers have been invented but won’t be commercially available for about another three years. “I think there will be full integration really, really soon,” she predicted. “We’ll be using haptic polymers where it’s integrated into the fibre.” But for now, the underpants she designed, for example, embed the haptic vibration motors into medical-grade silicon technology and then insert them inside a removable portion of the garment.
Whitehouse also noted there’s a company Shima Seiki that’s able to knit a circuit board into fabric. “Whether it’s data you’re collecting and you’re interested in biometrics or you are trying to send a message to the skin, there are ways you can do both,” she said.
Products like vibrating underpants might seem a bit gimmicky or only for a niche-market, but smart textiles have more universal applications and appeal. “All of us, the very first thing we touched after birth was a textile”. All of us—whether you think you’re an expert in textiles or not—you are an expert because you know what feels good on your body,” said Pailes-Friedman. “Smart textiles just add value to what already feels good on your body.”
Pailes-Friedman researches wearable technologies for clients that include NASA. Her research lab’s work includes garments designed to collect data from astronauts during space flight, armbands and harnesses that do things like monitor muscle fatigue or track assets. The same idea of smart textiles that track or monitor wearers could have health care applications for the aging population that Pailes-Friedman notes could help older people maintain their independence and live on their own for longer.
Body temperature control is another practical application of smart technology. “What if you had a single garment that you could adapt, that could read your body temperature and adapt to whatever environment you are in?” asks Pailes-Friedman, who sees this as something that will be achievable in the near future.
But if your garments have the ability to track muscle fatigue or adjust to your body temperature, they are collecting your data, and we need to ask how that data will it be stored, saved, and shared. Looking forward, we might want to start thinking about the ways our concept of value will be disrupted. Will it be a privilege to have garments in which you aren’t monitored? And, if you no longer need a new coat for every season, will a garment’s worth be driven more by functionality and less by cyclical fashion trends? Will the luxury of the near future be more about privacy and performance?
Pailes-Friedman doesn’t think the definition of luxury will change much. “I see successful wearables as becoming a luxury for all and the successful ones will combine beauty and functionality,” she wrote to me in an email. She pointed out that we’ve seen wearables enter the high-end marketplace first, just like with any new technology, because the investment in research and development drives the start-up costs.
She is, however, concerned about the issue of privacy. “We seem to be headed for a security disaster but until more people raise their voice to demand better security measures, nothing is going to happen,” wrote Pailes-Friedman.
Even though many wearables fall on the spectrum between fitness and health care, and the Federal Drug Administration has the purview to regulate products that market themselves under the umbrella of “general wellness,” they have decided they will be hands-off unless a device or app is promising to diagnose or treat a specific disease or condition. The Federal Trade Commission has been more slightly more active, and in January, they published a report on the “internet of things,” the term referring to objects with connective capabilities, a group of “things” that includes wearable devices. Their recommendations included suggestions for encryption and limits to be set on how long consumer data is stored.
A big part of the problem is how we’ve become accustomed to accept these invasions of privacy. Even though wearables, arguably, put more intimate data at risk, we’re already used to giving away so much of our personal information. “The cat’s been out of the bag for a while,” said social scientist and futurist Heather Schlegel. “It started with cookies and tracking. It was about convenience. It’s kind of snow-balled, and now people feel like there’s no alternative if you want to participate.” How this will carry-over when the data isn’t just your browsing history but also your biometrics, remains to be seen.
Shchlegel noted that it’s already a privilege to be able to protect against your data being harvested—you need to be able to afford ad-blockers and second computers or phones. “Privacy will not only be a luxury in the future, it already is one.”