This Smart Clothing Could Transform Wearables — And Your Wardrobe

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“Back To The Future” foresaw an era of video phone calls and personal drones. Now another prediction from the movie series could soon become part of daily life: smart clothing that can self-adjust to its wearer’s needs.

While an auto-drying jacket like Marty McFly’s is some way off, smart clothes are already here. They can heat up, cool down, change colour or even size themselves. In fact, the U.S. team at the Winter Olympics in South Korea wore self-heating jackets made by Ralph Lauren (RL).

Companies ranging from Nike (NKE) and Under Armour (UAA) to Google parent Alphabet (GOOGL) and Microsoft (MSFT) are developing smart clothing technology. As apparel makers hunt for tech know-how and tech nerds look for some fashion sense, the clothing trend is stitching together unlikely partners — and could reshape the apparel industry.

A partnership between Alphabet’s Google and Levi Strauss could be a sign of things to come. They have brought to market the $350 Commuter X, a denim jacket that lets the user control a phone through the use of gestures alone.

The coming years will see a variety of “really wacky partnerships” between fashion companies and tech specialists, said International Data Corp. analyst Ramon Llamas.

“The first time you saw Google and Levi’s you probably said to yourself, ‘How did this happen?’ ” he said in an interview. “But over time it came to make sense and was a natural fit.”

In addition to self-adjusting clothes, smart clothing includes internet-connected clothing. Juniper Research estimated last month that connected clothing is the fastest-growing segment of the wearable technology sector.

For now, smartwatches like the Apple (AAPL) watch and activity trackers like the Fitbit (FIT) dominate the overall wearables market. Juniper sees shipments of those devices hitting 137 million this year, with compound annual growth over the next two years projected at 31% for smartwatches and 6% for activity trackers.

Meanwhile, Juniper sees 102% compound annual growth in connected clothing, estimating it will be a $1 billion industry in 2020 with 7 million shipments. Just two years later, they will more than quadruple to 30 million shipments.

Smart clothes also differ from today’s wearables in that they will have longer ranges and more accuracy. They also won’t be limited to a small touch point at the wrist.

Developers are trying to keep smart clothes practical too. Google and Levi’s Commuter X jacket is machine washable and can go in a tumble dryer. But a “snap tag” that contains tiny electronics and a battery must first come off.

Google is developing a system that weaves technology into the very fabric of clothing as part of its Project Jacquard. Project leader Ivan Poupyrev says Google isn’t planning to make its own apparel and instead aims to “empower existing apparel makers.”

Loup Ventures managing partner Doug Clinton believes successful synergies between tech and apparel companies will be a key to success. That will help the smart clothes market be worth several billion dollars in the next few years, he estimates.

“I think we are going to see a lot of partnerships like that, and that’s what is going to push the market forward,” he said. “This combination of design and technology is a really important part of the story.”



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