We are excited to continue our discussion this week with leading wearable technologist Erich Zainzinger, to discuss fashion and wearable technology, and get the lowdown on his work and the future of wearable technology.
If you missed Part I of our discussion with Erich, read the interview here.
1. We’ve received questions about how wearable technology specifically applies to fashion, and the actual market for fashion wearable tech. Some people are skeptical. What are your thoughts on this?
Personally, I am very much in favor of using wearable tech in style, or as emotional elements in fashion apparel. Fashion and style are built around emotion; for example, selecting a particular cut, color, and design elements such as prints and sequins. But current style elements available to fashion designers are static – the color does not change unless I change the dress and the cut does not alter. With a little bit of wearable tech (e.g., an element that shines when I want it to shine or shows a magical glow based on my mood (or swings in mood) detected by textile sensors), we can add that ‘sparkle’ to our clothing.
More can be done with fashion, but I believe that the lack of availability of [off the shelf] wearable tech to create such fashion elements is what’s holding back a broader market acceptance right now.
2. Can you share with us an example of how fashion and tech are best integrated together?
MOON Berlin and CuteCircuit have Haute Tech collections that show us how technology enriched fashion can look and work. They incorporate aesthetic and discrete light accents made from active light sources, and not those that rely on light reflection like current ‘sparkle’ effects made by metalized or metallic yarn. Technology enriched fashion is also seen in the 2011/12 heated apparel range from Columbia, which includes jackets, shoes and gloves. The Milwaukee Power Heated Jacket for the professional market also enriches the product, although it’s not really a fashion item.
Wearable tech will almost always have different application opportunities - the tech integration differs but the core elements are the same. These examples show two areas wearable tech can address: the emotional and aesthetic with light elements or the very functional side of wearable tech such as apparel heating.
3. You work with companies to integrate wearable technology into products. What features and types of technologies (e.g., conductive threads, LED, solar paneling) are your clients requesting? What’s trending?
Initially, commercial wearable tech adoption started with the integration of device controls into jackets and backpacks. Think iPod and iPhone pockets and compartments. While this was a good starting point for wearable tech integrators (i.e., manufacturers), it came and went, just like many trends in fashion.
Now, light elements in clothing seem to generate high interest from both clothing brands and consumers, but as mentioned before, the technology and production process is at a very early stage. I expect textile light elements for clothing to become a fashion feature to stay for a long time once light emitting textiles become available. Heated clothing, shoes, and gloves have also become a hot item for both professional and consumer markets. I definitely see a strong demand for heated apparel over the next years, a trend that will stay for a long time as heated apparel has a very clear benefit for people who stay in cold weather over a long period of time.
4. In addition to client work, you work on your own projects. Tell us more about them.
First and foremost, I run talk2myShirt, a blog on wearable electronics. The aim of talk2myShirt is to inform readers of wearable tech developments and to highlight consumer products with technology enhanced features. I also love to promote all the great stuff the Maker and DIY communities come up with, and promote fantastic student works around wearable tech.
Via Elextile, I have been working on woven and braided ribbon that act as electrically functional cables. The idea came out of requests from client projects. While researching solutions, I could not find anything on the market ready-to-use, so I decided to start the research and design process including industrialization. I teamed up with a weaving company that was willing to make countless sample iterations and willing to learn alongside me to understand the material properties of electrically conductive yarn, and to figure out how to make ribbon cable for volume production at a very competitive price. It took us a little over 3 years to get everything under control; we brought the cost down by over 1000% (compared to the time when I made my first 100 meter proof of concept samples in early 2009). It was a frustrating process at times but looking back, it was worth doing and the rewards will come soon. The official launch of the ribbon cable range will be in March this year and I expect to have the first couple thousand meters in client projects before the end of 2012.
5. What are some applications of the ribbon cable?
The ribbon cable range was developed to create an infrastructure in textiles to connect various electrically active elements to a wearable tech solution. The first version of ribbon cable will be for applications such as an Audio Ribbon for headphones and Data Ribbon for any type of electrical signal transfer such as USB, remote control, or sensor data. The Textile Power Ribbon will be able to handle electrical current of up to 2A and is soft and flexible like any woven or braided ribbon used in apparel products. The hottest ribbon in this line up is the Heater Ribbon, a very soft and light weight ribbon type for apparel or glove heating. For our 2013 commercial launch, I plan to add an Elastic Cable Ribbon to the portfolio to cover any type of electrical infrastructure needs either as stand alone or alternative cable, or for the integration into apparel via sewing or laminating.
6. For individuals or startups interested in developing wearable technology as a business, what advice would you share with them?
As a starting point, I would offer the advice to look around, to scan the landscape in wearable technology, and write down areas of interest. Once this list is made, prioritize it based on the needs from apparel brands and desires from consumer insights. Set the priority for different wearable technologies identified by the needs/desire analysis. The priority is understood in terms of assumed market needs, the time frame expected to launch (your) first business, and the overall business size you plan to be a part of.
Next, select a few, or one best area/technology, you think has the highest potential that fits into your business strategy, and you have access to the needed tools. Learn as much as possible via online resources and talk with people in the business you want to serve (e.g., fashion, sports apparel, work-wear) about their fabrication methods, material flow, handling, and assembly process. And don’t forget about cost. You need to know how much value an additional feature can bring in from the consumer market so you know what price point you can sell your selected wearable technology. You will also need to work closely with a designer, have some basic knowledge in electrical/mechanical areas, and have access to weaving/knitting/cut-and-sew manufacturing. It does not need to be a large manufacturing facility to start off, smaller ones are usually more flexible to accommodate a lot of fabrication experiments during your wearable tech development.
This all sounds overwhelming and it is indeed a big challenge to work out wearable technology and processes that basically do not exist, but this is the nature of participating in a field of creation. Besides my own consulting via Elextile, there are other companies that offer support services to identify and advise on the startup process. They help find not only prospective technologies that await to be made ready for production but also assist wherever they are needed in the sometimes challenging process of moving experimental ideas to the production floor.
7. What is in store for wearable technology in 2012?
Based on my consulting work and a trend I can observe in the recent increase of activities by brands, we can expect to continue to see ‘sensible’ clothing in different applications. With ‘sensing’ I mean textiles integrated with various sensors like stretch or compression; sensor technology to pick up biometric information from wearers of sensible clothing. I expect applications to come into the consumer market in 2013 and range from sports apparel to medical monitoring clothing. Sports apparel will most likely move fast into the consumer market as the ever growing number of smartphone usage makes it relatively simple via apps to link smart, sensing apparel to powerful computing devices for data collection and visualization of performance or wellness. Having said this – there is still much work to do on technical design to integrate sensor technology into fabric and clothing. 2012 will be a busy year to work out the ‘manufacturability’ and reliability of sensory fabric in order to be ready for the consumer market in 2013.
As always, thank you Erich!