You would not believe how hard it is to project something onto a piece of clothing.
The slightest motion of the fabric, the slightest shift of the person wearing the garment, and the illusion breaks. It doesn’t matter how crisp or well-defined the image coming out of the projector is: the second that happens, it’s over.
Or that was the case, until recently. A team of scientists from the Ishikawa Watanabe Laboratory at the University of Tokyo have come up with a system that allows you to project a clear, defined image onto a shirt or jacket — an image which will stay crisp no matter how much you jump around. The system uses infrared ink and a thousand-frames-per-second, as they put it, “robust and high precision nonrigid surface tracking, even in the presence of occlusion.”
Admittedly, outside of a few theater and fashion-show applications, it’s completely useless. Very cool, but completely useless, like a political endorsement video with celebrities poking fun at themselves. It does, however, throw a light onto a particularly vexing question. We have the ability to incorporate lights, fitness trackers, color-changing fabrics, phone chargers and weather sensors into our clothes. So why do we not see them more often?
Why are we not walking around with jackets that double as extra power packs for our smartphones? Why do we leap on the latest app or console release, but give a collective shrug when the possibility of having smart clothing is talked about? It can’t be because the idea of having technology next to our skin makes us squeamish — not when fitness trackers like FitBit are expected to sell 40m units in 2016 alone, according to online marketing portal Statista.
Chelsea Klukas knows more about this than most. She’s the Marketing Director of Make Fashion, a non-profit artist collective devoted to creating innovative, wearable, high-fashion tech. The group has made waves thanks to some daring projects, including a set of ‘Gamer Girl’ dresses (with LEDs that allow the wearers to play a game on their clothing) and a smart suit with a wireless charging hangar. Although their projects aren’t available to buy — and won’t be for a while — they know what they’re talking about. Klukas, in particular, is very clear about the end-goal: make their tech available to everyone. “It would really be cool to have a pretty dress that monitors your heart rate, rather than having to wear something like a Fitbit or a Jawbone!” she says.
The problem was widespread acceptance of smart clothing, Klukas explains, comes down to three things, construction, cost, and how the fashion industry is currently set up.
Tech needs power. Power means batteries, and as plenty of tech publications have documented, current batteries just aren’t up to scratch. It’s why our phones were go longer than a full day before needing a charge; imagine the power required to keep a jacket alive. Not to mention the fact that a stray or loose wire could be catastrophic.
“In terms of the actual construction,” Klukas says, of Make Fashion’s work, “we always start with making sure that the garments are safe to wear, making sure that the batteries opposition safely, but the wiring isn’t going to respond to sweat or any moisture. We have to consider where the battery goes, because the batteries are quite large, especially in some of our pieces.”
Fortunately — or unfortunately, depending on how you feel about things like smart jackets — the landscape is changing, albeit slowly.
It’s also a cost issue. Put simply, a smart T-shirt cost a hell of a lot more than a normal T-shirt, and not just because of parts. Says Klukas: “Our garments, not even so much the technology but the amount of labour, is quite high. The fashion industry is really streamlined, and you can get an outfit from H&M for $14.99. As soon as you start adding in wires and batteries, you have to develop completely new manufacturing processes, and things become a lot more expensive to produce.”
Fortunately — or unfortunately, depending on how you feel about things like smart jackets — the landscape is changing, albeit slowly. Part of that, Klukas says, is down to the fact that smart clothing is becoming more design led, not just led by technology. “Five years ago, when we saw that Google Glass was launching, we kind of made the prediction that it wouldn’t be successful, which was controversial at the time. We felt it led with technology and not with fashion and design. And it was never fashionable, or cool. Now, we’re just starting to see wearable technology be led by design, like with the Apple Watch and some fitness wearables. There is a lot more attention to making a fashionable, and something that the average person would want to wear, as opposed to something an engineer thinks is cool.
“The most successful wearables are going to be pieces of hardware that use multiple pieces of software, and which can do different things. Apple watch can do more than just track your fitness. Wearables need to be multipurpose.”