SAN FRANCISCO — A handful of startups are getting traction in smart clothes, mainly for athletes. They hope that the electronics increasingly disappear into the shirts and socks, and that a broader set of companies helps establish the emerging category.
“Today retailers don't know where to put these products — by the shirts, but then it's an expensive shirt, or by the electronics,” Pierre-Alexander Fournier, chief executive of Hexoskin, told us after a talk at the Designers of Things conference here.
Hexoskin embeds the electronics for its smart shirt in a device about the size of a stack of business cards. It contains two microcontrollers, a Bluetooth radio, a USB controller, a 4 GByte SD card, and a battery adequate for about 14 hours of operation.
“We'd like this part to disappear into the clothing, so you don't think about it,” Fournier said. “It could be the size of a button, run on a coin cell so you don't need to charge it, and be something you can put in a washing machine. We are not there yet, mostly because of power consumption, which determines the battery size and device form factor.”
Hexoskin puts into its shirts about a dozen dry sensors measuring ECG, respiration, temperature, and blood oxygen level. “We can meld data from these sensors to get blood pressure and other data,” said Jean-Francois Roy, its chief technology officer.
Smart clothes makers face manufacturing challenges, too.
“Knitting using conductive wire will be best for production, but it's not yet available, and when it is, we may need to build some special machines for it,” Fournier said. “Polymer laminates are very precise, but less comfortable and not suitable for use with all kinds of textiles, because sensors need thermal transfer.”
Fewer than five manufacturers can make clothes with embedded sensors today. “There's a huge gap between the clothing industry and the electronics industry,” he said. “It's like travelling back to the 19th century when you visit these factories.”
Costs are another hurdle. The Hexoskin shirts sell for $169 each without the electronics or $399 with them. Fournier said startups are still experimenting with business models around selling clothing versus services.
Most of Hexoskin's customers are men buying the shirts for physical training. However, it also sells shirts for use in healthcare diagnostics and research, and it has planned for a FDA-approved model for use in medicine.
Smart clothes have been around since a NASA human factors group started working on astronaut uniforms in the 1980s, Fournier said. Europe has also sponsored smart clothes programs for its astronauts and for healthcare research. Many of the early efforts used brick-like external devices and lots of wires.
The following pages show examples of some of the smart clothes currently on the market, all generally focused on athletes.
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