Smart clothing. It's an area of wearables that we're continually told by analysts and forecasters will be the next big thing. We're still waiting on that to happen.
In recent years, there have at least been a few more high profile launches to stir our optimism. Like Levi's and Google's Commuter Trucker Jacket and the Nadi X smart yoga pants. Ultimately though, the invasion of connected garments that not only work, but also don't cost the big bucks, is still very much a work in progress.
Essential reading: Smart clothing you can buy right now
So how will we get to a world where our wardrobes and drawers are crammed with all manner of smart clothing? These are the innovations in the works that may finally help get us there.
Growing at a faster rate than expected, the progression of smart clothing has been fuelled by breakthroughs that are addressing unsolved problems. It is this future forward shift in the textiles industry that is responsible for introducing us to discoveries like triboelectric materials. It is the first energy-harvesting fabric capable of converting kinetic energy to electrical power from multiple sources like wind, rain and human movement.
Still in its early stages, triboelectric material achieves energy harvesting when specific materials are rubbed together, causing friction, which in turn causes electrons to be transferred from one material to the other. Designed by weaving together silver fibres and lyocell rayon fibres, the unique material has been developed to work with a myriad of applications in the wearable space.
Currently, triboelectric is being shown as a technology that could give us the power to create electricity ourselves. As for the future, Andrew Vinard, Director at Center for Personalized Health Monitoring at the Institute of Applied Life Sciences (IALS), said that it is an invention that is scalable, cost-effective and would be a "huge leap for consumer products".
Gas detecting textiles
Yes, we said gas detecting textiles. Capable of identifying certain gases, this smart textile was an idea dreamt up by engineers at Tufts University, a private research university. They came up with a three-step method that uses several chemicals and materials to effectively trap dye to the thread, rather than relying on binding chemistry. The idea is that the dyed threads change colour when they detect a whole variety of gases. The concentration of the gas and colour changes can then be detected visually by the human eye or via a smartphone camera.
The smart textiles also work under water and can be washed without diluting their smart properties. It's hoped they could be used within garments to detect carbon dioxide, for example. It's still very much in development with a view that the innovation can play a big part in the military as well as rescue, medical and industrial industries.
What if your jumper could keep you warm and cool you down? There are some smart fabrics already in development that offer to do one or the other, but with metatextiles you can get the best of both worlds. It's the first textile that can dynamically provide increased comfort in response to environmental conditions.
YuHuang Wang, lead scientist on the research behind it, created the textile innovation by knitting a yarn of triacetate cellulose, which lets the smart fabric turn your clothes into an automatic thermoregulation system that's responsive to the wearer's thermal discomfort.
This is a technology with a serious future in sportswear thanks to thermal management, which is key to performance. In fact, the research team behind it has already applied for a US patent with a view to bringing the smarts to the athletic space in a big way.
Taking the smart textile space in another direction is an innovative material known as AI Silk. Spun from raw silk and turned into a conductive wearable, the Japanese company behind AI Silk has used a dyeing technique that is capable of producing a robust and highly absorbent material.
Currently, the silk has been brought to the attention of the medical field due to its ability to help reduce some of the challenges faced by conventional medical electrodes. The key advantage is that the non-irritating material will not deteriorate with washing, a big bonus since washing smart garments is a common challenge.
That smarter silk is designed to be most beneficial for the health and medical industries, to help collect vital information to aid recovery from injury and illness.
Enabling a new generation of 'truly wearable' smart garments is Pireta. The UK-based smart fabric maker has come up with a way of allowing conductive patterns to be added directly onto fabric. That then enables the textile itself to become conductive. Promising zero negative impact on the performance of the textile, Pireta guarantees a smart garment that is stretchable, breathable, washable, durable and comfortable.
When it comes to how Pireta technology can be used in the fashion design space, the company states that their product will enable electronic circuits and components to be assembled and interconnected directly on a textile. It is a procedure that will have no impact on the handle, drape, stretch or breathability of the fabric.