The self-tracking trend exploded with wearable gadgets and accessories, beginning with smartphones and wristbands that track and measure users' data, including the number of steps taken and quality of sleep. The next generation, smart garments, are going to make those accessories seem rudimentary, at best.
Worn right against the skin, smart garments can more accurately measure our vitals, monitor health conditions, protect us from environmental hazards and possibly even prevent illness.
“A smart garment can support, protect and in some cases measure, predict and channel communication to and from the garment wearer from anywhere at any time," says Karen Stewart Brown, the co-founder and designer of clothing brand Stewart+Brown. A former senior designer at Patagonia and J. Crew, she is the co-founder of FUTUREADi® — a next-generation creative agency focused on engineering sustainable solutions for complex design problems.
“We are only seeing the early stages of what's to come," she adds. “Smart garments will do things like aid in gene therapy and be further combined with tissue culture methods to develop fast-growing and naturally laminated substitutes for human skin."
Eventually, Stewart Brown thinks we may have temperature sensors embedded just beneath the skin's surface. Using data collected from the body's surface, garments will be able to regulate body temperature — warming and cooling us when needed.
"Wearers will be alerted when exposed to high levels of ultraviolet rays, ionizing radiation, or the presence of strong magnetic fields, thus preventing damage to the skin or malfunction of medical devices such as pacemakers and insulin pumps," she predicts.
Clothing has always been a means of protecting the human body, but these technological advances take that protection to a whole new level.
Stewart Brown believes wearable technology will become so integrated into our lives that we won't even be aware of it. We can put away smartphones and other devices, but smart clothing is literally a second skin, becoming part of us and influencing our decision-making.
“From a kinda-creepy point of view, smart garments will have the ability to 'think' for us," Stewart Brown says. “Ultimately, we may start losing our ability to sense our needs, trust our instincts and use our intuition."
There are also privacy concerns. There is currently no regulation protecting personal data collected by wearables.
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York calls this a "privacy nightmare." He has urged the Federal Trade Commission to push developers to provide a "clear and obvious opportunity to 'opt out'" for consumers. This would prevent personal health data from being sold to third parties who could potentially use such sensitive, private information to discriminate against users.
Figuring out how to address these concerns with wearable technology will be an integral part of the innovation process.
Stewart Brown says there is no doubt that smart garments and wearable tech will be practical, but advises that we mix our excitement with a bit of caution and adopt this new technology in moderation. Maybe your shirt just doesn't need to know everything about you.