Someday, your clothing will work a bit like Iron Man’s suit. No, it won’t repel missiles, fly at supersonic speeds, or self-clean after an explosion, but it will monitor metrics like heart rate, muscle fatigue, and mid-jump physics.
That day is coming, but it’s not here yet.
We’ve previewed brands like OMSignal and Athos, both of which sell smart apparel with heart-rate sensors built in. Athos says its compression shorts and shirts can measure muscular output and critique your lifting form. (While we’ve seen impressive demos of Athos clothing, as of this writing, the product was still unavailable to test.) Then there’s Hexoskin and Myontec, two companies with clothing that also allegedly tracks muscle output and form. Indian group Lechal is making smart insoles invented to help blind people navigate (vibrations prompt when to turn left or right), and they can measure stats such as balance, pressure, and stride.
All of which sounds pretty nifty. But we’ve yet to see smart clothing—with all the tech of a FitBit, Garmin, or Polar watch—that we’d actually want to wear. Here’s why.
Big, Unreliable Battery Packs
Iron Man has a nuclear reactor in his chest. You probably don’t want that, but it’s a convenient explanation of how his suit operates.
The smart clothing of today isn’t nuclear powered. Instead, it relies on chunky batteries that need to be recharged often (think at most eight hours per charge) and are uncomfortable to wear. Take the Hexoskin shirt we tested, which uses a rechargeable battery (about the size of a stack of ten credit cards) that slips into an underarm pocket. This unit also sends the data from the shirt to your smartphone. It's a cool conceit, but the product isn't ready for the spotlight yet.
The Fix: Companies are experimenting with ways to scale down batteries, including developing super thin, flexible ones that could conceivably be built into a textile.
There’s also research into harnessing the kinetic energy produced when we move. The self-winding watch harnesses this kind of “free” power, and is exactly the advancement that must happen if smart apparel makers want to gain a foothold in the fitness market.
The Straight-Jacket Fit
The smart clothing manufacturers of today rely on ultra-compression base layers because they use sensors (like the ones found in a heart-rate strap) that must sit flush with the wearer’s skin to work.
Again, let’s look at the Hexoskin, which uses two parallel straps girdling your midriff to pin the garment close enough to collect data. This is uncomfortable, and, frankly, it’s ugly. Unless you’re built like a CrossFit world champion, you’ll likely want to wear something over the shirt (as I’ve done at the gym).
The Fix: Compared to new battery tech, sensor development is moving at light speed, with adhesive-based devices that can monitor heart, respiration, activity, and intensity debuting later this year. Clothing companies will need to harness these new capture techniques to built apparel meant for daily use. This will drive wider adoption, and, make the clothes more relevant because some metrics—like resting heart rate and recovery—can only be measured when you’re inactive.
Useless Data and Clunky Apps
Let’s face it: Fitness geeks will adopt cutting-edge devices to feel like they’re inches ahead of their peers, even if it means hurdling barriers like clunky batteries and ugly clothing. But even those early adopters will want an app that can make sense of all this new data. And this last puzzle piece could prove the toughest challenge for a smart apparel startup. I know from personal experience that Hexoskin's app is difficult to use and inaccurate: it counts steps when you’re not moving and doesn’t tell you how to make use of the data it’s gathering.
When we interviewed Under Armour’s Robin Thurston about why his company had acquired fitness apps MyFitnessPal and Endomondo, he said the apps were ultra-slick, well designed, and “sticky.” Read: they delivered information that users liked and found actionable.
And that’s a big advantage for Under Armour moving forward. Thurston acknowledged that Under Armour lags behind companies like OMSignal when it comes to smart apparel. But that’s okay, because his bigger brand will be able to throw lots of resources at app development when the time comes. The goal: to create a live, intuitive fitness feedback loop that makes sense of muscle output and form data.
The Fix: The smart apparel of the future will go way beyond metrics such as counting “steps” and monitoring heart rate. The best data will be prescriptive: What have I learned from my 10,000 steps or 150 bmp? What workout should I do tomorrow?
Likewise, measuring muscle output is pointless if it’s not diagnostic.
It might be good to know that you’re at equal balance of left/right quad effort during a squat, but what if you’re off-balance in your stride during a run? How do you fix that? Should you?
Currently, no company is addressing these challenges. There’s promise in this industry, but ultimately smart clothing has to actually be “smart.” It needs to take us beyond wrist trackers and get beyond bugs like massive battery packs, tight and uncomfortable fits, and clunky apps. It needs to turn into clothing we’d actually wear.
That leap just isn’t going to happen in a superhero’s single bound.