Leaving the watch behind: The future of smart running clothes

Future of Running Week: The race to make connected apparel for runners

Whether it's sports watches or fitness trackers, with the intention of simple step counting or tapping into heart rate data, the wearable technology that many of us are familiar with is already of a bygone era.

Companies began to see past these simple pieces of tech 20 years ago, envisioning a world where our clothing is digital, our physical wellbeing is monitored, devices are integrated into our healthcare system and virtual reality completely changes the way we exercise.

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Biometric apparel such as running shirts, shorts, socks and sports bras are already capable of giving accurate fitness metrics and detailed analysis. We're talking embedded sensors for tracking activities, the ability to measure breathing rate, analyse sweat and even break down advanced running metrics.

What more could runners want? Unfortunately, it seems that smart clothing of this kind still faces some challenges to truly go mainstream.

The comfort factor

Leave the watch behind: The future of smart running clothes

Electrode-embedded fabrics used in biometric clothing have been in production for more than two decades, but developers across most of the world are still struggling to make them comfortable – an undoubted necessity for running.

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"To date, virtually no one likes the way smart clothing feels," Dr Steven LeBoeuf tells us. LeBoeuf is president and cofounder of Valencell, the US-based tech company that claims to have the most accurate biometric sensors designed for wearable devices.

"Smart clothing tech companies need to focus less on measuring new metrics and more on making their technologies truly seamless, wearable, and washable," he insists. "Basically, if you can't treat a shirt like a shirt, then it ain't a shirt – I don't care how smart it is."

Japanese startup Xenoma might be close to cracking that comfort problem with their electronic skin technology (e-skin). The stretchable electronics, which can connect to smartphones via Bluetooth, were developed in Professor Takao Someya's lab at the University of Tokyo before the company formed as an offshoot in 2015.

"Current e-skin is quite close to conventional compression shirts," cofounder and CEO Ichiro Amimori explains. "Users do not even notice they are wearing smart apparel in terms of comfort.

"The hardware attached has to be not only small but conventional, like buttons and other apparel parts. Then once we can have more than one inertial sensor on specific body parts, we can obtain many things."

This sort of futuristic technology may one day even enable us to have screens on our skin, so it may well be the future of phones as well as fitness. It is Xenoma's intention that e-skin becomes an everyday wearable item. It may one day change how we exercise and maintain our health, as well as how we interact with each other, the internet, games and even money. Tracking technology and cryptocurrency are beginning to collide through exercise reward generation mechanisms, such as SweatCoin, which you earn through step count.

E-skin capabilities are, of course, not yet a reality, as it also remains very much unperfected. Despite being wireless so the user can exercise wherever they please and run as far as they like, battery life and size is a concern.

In September 2016 the Panasonic Corporation announced the development of a bendable and twistable lithium-ion battery, which is hoped to be the solution for biometric clothing. However at this stage in development, Amimori tells me capacity is still proportional to the volume and so size is big a problem.

The most realistic future at this time, according to LeBoeuf, is limited to trainers. They are an item where it will be easier to hide a larger battery, flexible or otherwise.

"Energy harvesting technology combined with accelerometers in shoes will be the first implementation that will see mass market adoption," he tells me. "Part of the reason is that energy can be more readily absorbed from the foot and you typically don't wash your shoes."

Getting them in your wardrobe

Leave the watch behind: The future of smart running clothes

When the day comes that trainers, smart clothing or e-skin are perfected for runners – when they can be comfortable, powered and washable – will people want to buy them?

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"The number of runners creates one of the biggest sport categories and most amateur runners are interested in their own health conditions. It is one of the most promising sports for smart clothing," Amimori tells me. However transitioning into the mainstream market is not expected to be easy.

"User acceptance is one of the biggest challenges," he claims. "Fashion and design is very important in terms of a user's acceptance.

"Fashion is the function to provide a positive motivation for users to wear it. Most current developers are trying to make it invisible but this is just one way, there will also be ways to show electronics to users – either way the design is always very important."

We have seen mainstream technology products, particularly from popular brands such as Apple, where year-on-year the price increases, and yet this doesn't seem to deter people from investing. So maybe we will be saying the same about smart running clothes when the right piece of apparel lands.

Putting a price on connected running gear

Leave the watch behind: The future of smart running clothes

While it will be possible for biometric apparel to get cheaper over time, functional demands made by the consumer are likely to increase along with the price, while further research and development becomes constant.

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Perhaps unusually, LeBoeuf does not believe affordability needs to matter: "There will be niche markets where smart clothing will not need to be low-priced. Perhaps a great example is winter clothing with built-in smart heating or dynamic wicking of moisture.

"I feel developers are likely to be successful if they focus on niche applications where price doesn't really matter, but they also make sure their innovations are truly seamless and wearable. For example, a built-in smart heater that needs to be frequently recharged is not truly seamless. If you have one that's robust, some people will pay a lot for it.

"Either way you'll need to stick to your watches, armbands, and earbuds for now. It's a long way to go before smart clothing that runners will truly use on a regular basis is at mass market scale."

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