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The Role of IoT in Fashion Technology
The Internet of Things (IoT) is taking the world by storm and is impacting our lives in ways never imagined before. Simply put, the Internet of Things consist of various devices ranging from simple sensors to smart devices that are connected with the help of automated systems. With IoT, it is possible to collect information from these connected devices, analyze and act on the data analyzed. While IoT as a technology is already in application across industries like industrial automation, healthcare, safety, fitness, wearables, and consumer electronics, in this blog post we intend to examine the role of IoT technology in the fashion industry.
With the introduction of smart clothing by Levi’s & Google, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger and others, there was hope that IoT would find a solid ground in fashion too, which has however not materialized as expected in the mass market. Let’s take a look at the current role of IoT technology in the fashion industry.
The easiest way to get to know your customer is to collect actual usage data. Fashion companies are harnessing the power of IoT data from users' own mobile phones to get more information about them. Fashion retailers like H&M, Zara, Uniqlo, The Bay and many others offer customized shopping experiences through mobile apps where data is collected about specific users, their interests, location, and browsing data. This data is then used to create personalized experiences and special offers based on user interests and shopping patterns.
Besides looking to improve direct shopping experience, brands like Nike, Under Armour, and Adidas offer fitness applications for training. While users benefit from the training guides and workouts using these applications, the companies promote their own exercise gear and apparel for the best training results.
RFID is another technology that is being used in the fashion industry for retail. Inventory management is one of the oldest applications of RFID. Enhanced with the power of software, RFID tags are helping companies determine actual volumes of inventories available, forecast demand, plan restocking and determine logistics.
With the rise of ethical concerns about manufacturing practices and resources in fashion, brands are exploring ways to use RFID as a way of ensuring traceability of their supply chain. Companies like CircularID, Avery Dennison, RFID Thread and Applied DNA Services are offering solutions to fashion brands enabling transparency and traceability of raw materials and manufacturing partners.
Counterfeit products are a serious issue for luxury brands and with the rise of online shopping it is really hard to protect customers from fake goods. Companies like Authentic or Not are offering RFID solutions for luxury brands to verify authenticity of the products while protecting their brand and customers. Luxury brands are also exploring the possibilities of IoT and blockchain to help with authenticity verification of their products.
When one usually mentions wearables and fashion in the same sentence, the conversation generally tends to refer to a smart watch. Being the most mature and adopted wearable device, smart watches are available in all forms and shapes. Aside from functionalities that are similar to fitness activity trackers, smart watches have become an extension of one’s phone. Most phone apps are now supported on the smart watch allowing users increased flexibility in using their connected devices. The fashion side of this type of wearable really shines through the freedom in choosing band design, colors, and materials.
Another wearable category that could be singled out for popularity is wellness. Wellness wearable devices combines the benefits of IoT with its appealing design. Some of the greatest fashion-focused wellness wearable devices are positioned as a statement accessory piece with added functionality of monitoring stress levels, exercise routine and meditation. Bellabeat is a great example of a fashion-tech company turning fashionable accessory items into smart wellness devices. While bracelets and watches are the most successful form factors in this category, there are a number of smart rings trying to enter the market. In this case, smaller form factor of the rings offers challenges in realizing enhanced features and companies are still in the early stages of improving this form.
Fitness trackers touch fashion only in adjacent ways. With function prioritized over style, these devices still double as a fashion statement. They signal to the world one’s interest in sports and fitness. There is lesser choice with regards to bands and accessories for these devices since most really focus on tracking health and exercise data.
At NeuronicWorks we had the opportunity of working on a wearable security device called Lotus that one can easily use to activate tracking and sharing of GPS location, photo and audio data. The interesting challenge of this wearable device was that all desired functionalities had to fit into a small coin-shaped device. While small and with just two buttons, the unit is an example of elaborate user interactions using only RGB LEDs for feedback.
Lotus Wearable Device
Smart clothing has proved to be a challenging field. Several companies have experimented with “Smart shirts” and “Smart jackets” ideas and its interesting to note that the few players who have sustained have pivoted to healthcare and fitness applications for their products.
With the advent of technology and conductive threads, it is now possible to integrate light-weight sensors into fabric in a manner that allows prolonged skin contact. The data collected from these sensors can be used to monitor existing chronic conditions, or for preventive care and diagnostics. The challenges with such garments are reliability and durability of embedded sensors and connectors, presence of a bulky power supply unit, and the inadvertently high cost of the garment. The battery/power supply unit could vary in size but is still noticeable and needs to be charged regularly for continuous use.
There are a couple of companies who continue to work in the smart clothing space. Hexoskin, a Montreal-based smart-garment company and one of the pioneers in the field, have been developing sensor-embedded garments for many years now. Their garments are now used for research by the Canadian Space Agency and are worn by astronauts in space to collect health data. Another Canadian company exploring smart garments for healthcare applications is Myant Inc with Skiin. The company creates garments with woven sensors and a small electronic device allows the data from sensors to be transmitted to the app for analysis. The company features multiple styles of undergarments for health monitoring and also garments with embedded heating elements.
Smart clothing for fitness mainly focuses on improving posture, performance and measuring biometrics during the workout for future review and analysis. Specific applications could vary, but most companies in this space are targeting training athletes who are serious about improving their results. Every minor detail could influence the performance and the sensors could be much more specialized, like targeting certain muscles activities for example.
A good example of a fitness focused smart-clothing company is Athos. The US-based company offers solutions for athletes and teams with technology that track muscle response to exercise and a software that visualizes the data for the end user. Muscle engagement measurement seems like a complex solution, but simple posture monitoring is also possible. Nadi X yoga pants are designed for just this purpose. With multiple accelerometers embedded into the pants, the creators claim to monitor the posture and guide the user to achieve optimal posture during training.
Safety and Comfort:
Safety and comfort do not sound very fashionable in terms of style. But one of the most important functions of apparel is the protection of the human body from harsh environments. That is why it is not surprising to see inventors experimenting with clothing and technology to increase safety. Problems like low visibility, excessive cold and even heat management are being tackled with the use of IoT powered technologies. With the goal of creating a seamless user experience companies are integrating IoT capabilities into smart garments for comfort and safety management. Multiple embedded sensors can monitor external environment conditions and automatically adjust the internal setting of garments.
Garments for cyclists were among the first projects that came to the market to address low visibility on the road. Embedded with LED lights and sensors like accelerometers, proximity and light sensors, these products are helping cyclists to stay visible on the road, enhancing signals to the traffic.
One example of such a product is a Metier Beacon Jacket that incorporates LED lights with a control unit into the jacket for increased visibility.
At NeuronicWorks we also had the pleasure of working on a Smart Jacket project as part of our in-house R&D. The project was focused on developing a more versatile solution for urban cyclists that also included pedestrian scenarios and outdoors events, as opposed to limiting to niche professional cycling. We described some of our thoughts on the process in the previous blog post.
Technomad City Jacket
Technomad City Jacket
Technomad City App
Heated garments are also a great example of IoT integration in fashion. There have been a few smart heated jackets released in the past including the Mercury Jacket. This category of apparel still holds a lot of potential as a stable, commercially available product in this category is yet to be fully developed.
Smart clothing as a category still faces many challenges- Technology limitations, manufacturability issues, and high costs are some of the main reasons we don’t see mature products and wide scale adoption. There are companies that are working hard on developing scalable solutions for electronics and textiles integration like Loomia that are durable, safe, and washable. But there are still challenges like price, durability, sensor accuracy, battery issues, and overall bulk reduction of electronics that needs to be addressed.
There is no doubt that IoT will have a huge impact on fashion beyond retail, supply chain management and trendy wearables. With technology advancements and the advent of printed, flexible sensor technology, smart clothing as a connected wearable product, will eventually pick up and become an important part of future life, like smartphones are today.