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Haute IoT: Smart garments and e-textiles

Smart garments and e-textiles (which meld traditional fabrics with cutting-edge technology) are altering the landscape of fashion, apparel, retail and furnishing sectors. While the methods for incorporating the technology vary (for example, placing sensors into a compression shirt or weaving special fibers into a dress), these fabrics not only allow an individual to enjoy cutting-edge style, but also harness the abilities of IoT. Current research that addresses issues in smart garments and e-textiles has uncovered a wide range of uses, from the utilitarian (measuring your heart rate) to the fantastic (light-up skirts). There are distinct advantages to bringing these technologies to your customers, but businesses must also support a strong commitment to consumer privacy in order to fully realize their benefits.

Global opportunity

Cisco indicated that IoT will create $14.4 trillion of value in the next decade, offering the opportunity to increase global corporate profits by 21%. Firms slow to adopt risk profit, market share and potential long-term viability. There is a tremendous amount of global potential, especially in countries with large capacity IoT opportunities such as China, the U.S., Germany, the U.K., Mexico and Australia.

Research from Gartner noted that smart garment sales were about 100,000 units in 2015, but current expectations for shipments are on track to hit 26 million units in 2016. During 2013, U.S. retail sales of clothing, shoes and accessories stores hit $244 billion. The global market for smart fabrics alone is forecasted to grow to around $2 billion dollars by 2018, a 64% increase over its current market value.

There is clearly strong potential for smart garment and e-textile growth — however, maximizing the opportunity involves understanding the best prospects and creating the right approach.

Optimizing life

Smart garments are more transformative than wrist wearables that provide step counts or heart rates. Industry- and government-supported research is making significant inroads to bringing real-life solutions to healthcare, athletics and fashion. These enhancements create value, boost health insights and reduce costs. For example, Eccrine Systems Inc. has created a patch that examines the chemical composition of sweat while researchers at Georgia Tech have developed haptic gloves that stimulate the hands of stroke victims to enhance their recovery times. The utilization of smart garments and e-textiles in athletics is projected to increase as player health concerns take center stage. Connected shirts, like Hexoskin, relay vitals to trainers while IoT helmets, like ShockBox, warn coaches about impacts. A common lament for online shoppers is that it is difficult to judge the correct fit of a garment, a problem solved by companies such as LikeAGlove, whose leggings take a wearer’s exact measurements and send them to an app to recommend pairs of pants that will best fit the individual’s body type.

Opportunities everywhere

While healthcare, athletics and fashion are beginning to enjoy a boost from e-textiles, every industry will be affected by these fabrics. For example, energy efficiency can be improved in homes that use technology like temperature-sensitive shades (FlipFlic and Control4 have solutions). Smart rugs can monitor the gait of the independent elderly to recognize potential balance problems or predict falls (University of Manchester). Employees in dangerous occupations benefit from real-time data while supervisors can pinpoint problems before they start (whole buildings can incorporate IoT, an idea being capitalized on by Siemens). Autos will benefit from smart fabrics in the seats, shades, flooring and interior lining.

Of course, smart cities are already in the works (AT&T), and e-textiles can contribute to safety on public transportation, sidewalks and parks. IoT-sensing capabilities currently found in smart garments and e-textiles can be complemented with visual and audio human-computer interfaces; the increasing amount of digital signage in public spaces is an area of untapped potential — every flat surface can be a point of interaction, such as the outside of buildings and hotels or the inside of retail stores and subways.

Privacy matters

The ubiquity of smart garments and e-textiles naturally highlights security and privacy concerns. The implementation of connected devices and fabrics requires a strong foundation of privacy — consumers must feel that their data is secure and that the company cares. Creating a company culture that respects customer privacy can be supported through the hiring of a chief privacy officer and by implementing industry best practices.

Smart materials have the potential to be infused into just about everything on or around us — our bodies, homes, cars, buildings and cities. Industries such as apparel and textile manufacturing traditionally have had very low profit margins. They now have the potential to increase these margins and drive top-line growth by incorporating smart materials into their manufacturing and consumer products. However, protecting consumers and respecting privacy are key issues for enterprises to consider as they move into this data-driven environment. How will major fashion, apparel, retail and furnishing brands strike a fine-balance?

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.