Both technology and fashion companies have been experimenting with connected garments for a few years now.
Even now, as more and more brands create tech-enabled clothes with embedded motion sensors, haptic vibrations and NFC smarts, they still seem reserved for very specific uses. Like high-end tracking for those serious about their fitness or more accurate monitoring for newborns.
To bring smart clothing to a mainstream audience, companies need to create garments that aren't just tech-enabled, but are also comfortable, stylish and engineered with different bodies in mind. It's not impossible, but it's a feat few seem to have got right so far.
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One brand that might have managed to tick all of those boxes is Wearable X. We first spoke to Billie Whitehouse, co-founder of Wearable X, back in 2015 about some of the conceptual designs for smart garments she and her team were working on. Fast-forward two years and Wearable X is finally set to launch its first product, Nadi X.
These tech-enabled yoga pants use haptic feedback in order to perfect your posture and practise your pigeon pose. Of course, like other smart garments already on the market, they're aimed at those taking part in a specific activity.
We spoke to Billie Whitehouse, the co-founder of Wearable X, about the development process behind Nadi X, how haptic technology is being used and the challenges of creating smart clothing geared to a normal lifestyle rather than a sports field.
Feeling the force of haptic technology
"Touch is at the centre of our brand," Whitehouse told us when we asked about the thinking behind Nadi X.
"We want to create products that make you 'feel'. This was how we created Nadi X. Its embedded technology knows what pose you're in and guides you with gentle pushes through the hips, knees and ankles."
The embedded technology that Whitehouse is referring to is known as haptic technology, or just haptics as it's increasingly being called. Haptics is essentially a kind of technology that provides a user with feedback when they're interacting with a device or interface – feedback that recreates the feeling of touch.
Without knowing it you've probably experienced haptic technology before, whether you've felt it yourself as a vibration from a wearable like the Apple Watch Series 2, a games controller or even on the home button on your iPhone. Now, thanks to advances in haptic technology and its use in wearables, VR, the medical industry, design and so many more spaces, it's becoming more and more widespread, easier to add to different hardware and more realistic than ever.
Wearable X has been developing concepts for products embedded with haptic tech for years. "The world is overrun with screens," she said. "Haptic communication has the ability to give wearers their eyes back.
"To date, it's been a lot easier for tech companies to channel their efforts into creating top-class visual and auditory experiences. But now sensors and actuators that work in tandem to create force feedback are advancing, it makes sense to focus on feeling. After all, researchers believe we respond quicker to touch than we do to visual or audio cues and, crucially, touch can be sensed by all areas of the body. In many ways you could argue it feels more realistic, immersive and intuitive to feel something rather than hear it or see it – but of course, everyone's different.
Nadi X has been developed to give very gentle touch feedback to the wearer, almost mimicking the feel of having an instructor guide you into the right position
Whitehouse explained why haptic technology felt so right for its Nadi X project. "It's a non-intrusive and intuitive form of communication," she said. "The subtle effect of haptics can guide a sensory experience through many different parts of life, not just yoga."
Importantly, Nadi X has been developed to give very gentle touch feedback to the wearer, almost mimicking the feel of having an instructor guide you into the right position.
Whitehouse explained: "Nadi X listens and responds to your body, guiding you through your yoga flow. These pants are designed with embedded technology, specifically haptic modules and accelerometers. Using vibrational feedback, the pants encourage you with gentle pushes around your hips, knees and ankles."
Combining yogi wisdom and AI smarts
Last time we spoke with Whitehouse, the Wearable X team was developing concepts for a number of different 'smart' garments. So we were interested to find out why the Nadi X was the product to make it to market. The main challenge it seems was ensuring that the software powering the pants was just as good as the garments themselves.
"We worked on custom software that is powered for artificial intelligence, so that you can connect to your smartphone and your pants will do the work. This product has been two years in the making," Whitehouse said.
And it's not just the tech that needed work. Die-hard yoga fans will be happy to hear that the Wearable X team ensured they really knew their stuff when it came to yoga practice in order to create the best possible product.
"We have worked with many yogis across three different countries, including the USA, Australia and Sri Lanka," Whitehouse said. "From the inception of the idea we worked with different yoga communities on everything from where the pulse should be located so that it doesn't disrupt the yoga practice to what this language on the body should reflect and where the sensors should be located."
It's not uncommon for tech companies to have a great idea and focus so doggedly on the tech, the development and the marketing that they ignore one crucial thing – what do consumers really want?
Consulting yogis around the globe was certainly a great move. But more than that, Wearable X identified the importance of personalisation. Rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all approach, companies that make products for our bodies need to understand our bodies are all different.
"That's Nadi X's point of difference," Whitehouse said. "It's the true personalisation of data. Traditional customers don't know how to care about personal data unless it makes them feel different."
The way the Wearable X team learned more about the nuances of personalisation was through rigorous testing and lots of feedback.
"Our constant consumer trials allowed us to make sure we were building something that people would be interested in. The first ever test we did was so different from the product today," she explained.
As Whitehouse and her team have created a lifestyle product, it's refreshing to hear that the concerns of regular customers are being valued rather than focusing solely on early adopters, serious athletes or tech lovers.
Predicting the future of touch technology
So what's next? A company that's been so ambitious with its developments must have at least ten more exciting products in the pipeline?
Whitehouse explained that the company will be using similar tech in an accompanying bra rather than venturing in another direction. "The Nadi X bra will have sensations that roll down the shoulders to remind you to bring your shoulders back and down," she said. "As well as a custom meditation feature that guides you with inhales and exhales on your chest."
Having worked in this wearable space for many years and developed the concepts behind a number of smart clothing products, we were keen to find out what Whitehouse saw as the future of the industry.
"It'll simply become clothing," she told us. "The same way we design with Nylon, zippers and buttons, all of which were deemed a new technology at one point. The smart elements of clothing will simply be as much a part of the piece of clothing as a button or zipper."
Of course there's still a long way to go before smart tech is woven into more and more clothing, but Whitehouse thinks that's the natural evolution – and might not be as far off as you think. "It becomes smaller and more affordable constantly, it's only a matter of time," she said.