ThinkLAB Material Scientist Anuja Bagul looks into the future of wearables and integrated technology. Solving problems for the next generation of digital intelligence for its exponential growth in our homes and apparel.
Electronics have, for the most part, lived as separate entities — in devices. The reason for this being that the integration of electronics in surfaces, products, or clothes provides no “life-changing” functionality or simplicity compared to the existing options (except for medical and military applications). But what if electronics integrated for long-term use could change that?
For instance, let’s discuss sleep. As our day-to-day gets busier and more stressful, getting a full night’s sleep is extremely important. Imagine getting the most pleasant sleep by simply slipping into your bed linens. With the evolution of e-textiles from being a medium sensors on which sensors can be embedded to behaving as sensors themselves, e-textiles can be used to efficiently monitor the wearers emotions to provide better sleep. The e-textile would monitor your body movement and breathing to provide precise data concerning your sleep. Depending on your biorhythm (heartrate, body movement, sweat, and temperature), the e-textile could interact with other appliances in your house to control the lights, temperature, and music for an ideal sleeping experience.
However, there is a difference between the usage and longevity of bed linens and that of the technology integrated into these objects. It gets even more complicated when it comes to other home goods and textiles that are expected to last even longer, many for more than a decade. As the electronics and assisting software components are rapidly upgraded, the integrated home goods are rendered obsolete in no time.
In the current fast fashion industry, integration of electronics can be even worse. With the lifetime of garments ranging from a few months to a couple of years, there is need for high volume, cheap electronics that can be embedded within these garments to sustain the rapid turnover.
For successful integration of technology in these worlds – fashion and home goods – divergent thinking will be essential.
Two separate approaches will be necessary depending on the longevity of the product a company is trying to produce. For inspiration and possible direct implementation, the fashion world can look toward the smart packaging industry that produces active, intelligent, and smart packing materials that are mostly a one-time use or a short-life material. These materials have to be produced in large volumes and at low cost to sustain the economy/utility balance. The commodity packaging industry caters to high speed, high volume, and low cost manufacturing that can translate very well for the fast-paced fashion industry.
As for home goods, there are few ideal solutions just yet. One direction is to think towards designing not only for disassembly, but also for upgrades. Currently there are options to customize products aesthetically, but not to keep up with the ever-upgrading world of electronics.
We are moving toward a world where smart materials are not going to be “tchotchkes” that will be used until the novelty wears out, but instead will have a functional aspect that is going to make them “utilitarian”. Many people are solving to make wearables and structural electronics lighter, faster, smaller, and more efficiently integrated. They are becoming the next “invisibles”. However, without a lifespan overhaul, these innovations won’t be game-changers.
In order for wearable and structural electronics to be disruptive like the computer or the Internet, what we really need to address is the convergence of lifespans as very different industries — fashion, home goods and electronics — are now merging. True sustained success will be seen when there is continued user engagement throughout the product’s life.