Clothes still don’t make the man—or woman—but soon they may at least be helping men and women to do more things. According to recent reports, clothing with smart technology may soon be able to perform all kinds of previously unthinkable feats, in addition to more traditional functions like keeping us warm, showing off our status or protecting our modesty. Smart conductive fabrics are under development that could allow designers to streamline not just how we look, but how we live and work.
Accompanying this trend are innovations in textile design. Like paper, textiles are an ancient technology that let you solve certain problems, but in a limited way. For instance, you can print a paper invoice and send it to someone else for payment, but you can’t both inspect the same paper invoice unless you’re in the same room. Similarly you can put on a sweater that keeps you warm on a cold day, but you can’t adjust the warmth of the sweater when the sun comes out.
The “death” of paper is already well underway, and nowhere more so than in the world of AP, where the benefits of digitization are easy to see. Costly and time-consuming manual processes no longer wear on AP and AR departments, thanks to digital transformation. True e-invoicing is streamlining the P2P process, revealing the status of invoices and payments previously shrouded in paper. Buyers are accessing payment data that helps them work smarter, while cash–strapped suppliers can draw on early funds through innovations like Early Payment.
Now textiles are poised to transform fashion in a similar way.
Levi’s new Commuter smart jacket, using Google’s Project Jacquard technology, lets you control your smart phone by touching the cuff of the jacket with different gestures, so you can change the music or get the time without touching the phone.
The jacket and the most well-known wearable of all—the Apple Watch—leverage the brains of the smartphone for their functionality, and one looming challenge for fashion to break free of dependence on the smartphone and identify new unique roles for the things we wear. For instance, a smart jacket may someday monitor your heart rate or measure other health data without requiring a smartphone to process or display the data. Wearables like this will require new ways of communicating information to wearers, and new ways of interacting with clothing.
That lofty future may be a long way off, and at present the innovations seem a bit more low level, with Nike having developed a shoe that laces itself at the press of a button, although the sky high $720 price tag seems destined to keep the shoes off of feet rather than on them.
Surprisingly, friction is often found where we least expect it, which is to say we don’t realize there’s friction until it’s gone. Who knew that paper invoices were so inconvenient until we had the technology to make them virtual? Did we yearn for the ability to shop online, before the Internet existed? Likewise, will our clothing acquire new capabilities that reveal to us frictions we didn’t know we had?
It’s possible the most consequential new development may not be wearable at all, but rather something that helps us figure out what to wear. Amazon’s Echo Look is a standalone device designed to stay in the home, helping users to better understand and utilize their wardrobes by letting them take, organize and share photos and videos the device takes of them in different attire. Generating the most buzz is a feature that lets individuals use the Look to give them opinions on specific outfits. The success of that function will be interesting to gauge, because surely it’s the fashion faux pas that is the friction we don’t realize we have, until someone else points it out to us.