The demand for smart clothes with embedded computing devices is slowly rising, but it is hindered from mass adoption due to delicate sensors that cannot withstand sweat, machine washing, and extremes in temperature.
An ABI Research report forecasts that the smart clothing market will top 31 million units shipped annually by 2022, increasing from just under 5 million in 2017. The single strongest year will be 2019, with growth ramping up until then, and slowing afterward, according to Eric Abbruzzese, principal analyst at ABI Research.
Smart clothes are garments such as shirts, pants, socks, and shoes with an embedded computing device that monitors health statistics such as heart rate, respiration, skin temperature, and oxygen saturation.
Smart clothing has yet to reach mass market appeal, but it's a growing industry because there are highly targeted consumer applications within the sports, fitness, and wellness markets.
"There hasn't been a great deal of activity just yet in the market; some early attempts by companies like Nike and Under Armour were moreso litmus tests for the market than full-scale product launches. The next few years will see a steadily increasing number of product releases, contributing to that strong 2019 growth. When you look at the incredibly broad product offerings for these companies, you can begin to see how ubiquitous smart clothing can become, assuming that the technology permeates throughout product lines over time," Abbruzzese said.
Some innovative companies driving adoption include Sensoria, OMsignal, and Hexoskin. Among larger companies, Ralph Lauren created a smart polo shirt in 2015, and in 2016, Google and Levi's debuted the Commuter Trucker Jacket for cyclists that links mobile devices to Bluetooth.
SEE: Why Google's smart jacket could be a boon for commuters (TechRepublic)
What's needed for mass market adoption
"Before smart clothing reaches mass adoption, the technology behind its embedded sensors needs to improve," said Ryan Harbison, research analyst at ABI Research. "The sensors have to withstand conditions that other wearables don't, such as body sweat, wash cycles, and extreme temperature variances. Vendors will have to solve this through innovative manufacturing and do so before consumers voice these concerns."
Most smart clothing products currently feature detachable sensors that must be removed before washing. If they are not removable, they must be washed with the garment, and even the most advanced sensors only last for 60 to 70 washes before needing to be replaced.
There aren't enough use cases yet to allow smart clothing to reach mass market appeal, according to Scott Jordan, CEO of SCOTTeVEST, which manufactures smart vests and jackets and other products.
"Right now, most form factors and benefits are just not strong enough for consumers to adopt smart clothing and use it on a daily basis. If consumers are not going to use the smart clothing regularly or the clothing doesn't provide a drastic benefit vs. hardware-based alternatives, consumers won't see the value or appeal," Jordan said.
"People don't want technology decisions when buying clothing. Clothing, by its very nature, needs to be changed frequently. Another issue is designing clothing with enough battery power to last a full day's use. We developed a patented Personal Area Network that allows users to route charging cables from pocket to pocket to keep devices at full charge, but to have wearable (and washable) smart clothing with this kind of battery power is just not feasible as of now," Jordan said.
Putting sensors into clothing represents a major change in thinking for manufacturers and consumers, and that's one of the reason for slow adoption rates.
Davide Vigano, co-founder and CEO of Sensoria, said, "Brands are just now realizing that with a platform approach it is technically and economically feasible to get data from their apparel and footwear products. Smart clothing and biometric body sensors can be considered the ultimate wearables and are revolutionizing traditional industries: apparel, textiles, and footwear. The impact of this transformation cannot be underestimated, since it is equivalent to the industrial revolution, which was the last transformative event for the industries in question."
Tech giants and smart clothing
Currently, Google and Intel are in the smart clothing market, with Google's partnership with Levi's to create the Commuter Trucker Jacket, and Intel's smart performance shirts. At CES 2016, Samsung debuted a sample line of smart clothes that included a suit and belt, but it was never produced for retail sale.
More large tech companies will eventually enter the market, but there's no specific timeline when this might occur.
"If smart clothing follows a similar trend to smart watches, then we will see some major tech vendors starting to launch products very soon (CES 2018 as an early example). The differences between clothing and watches are notable though, and so it is not likely to be a 1:1 correlation with the watch market. Different manufacturing requirements, component vendors, and general brand/marketing messages could present obstacles for the big tech companies. We are more likely to see the likes of Under Armour, Nike, Adidas, etc. continue to push into the market with a wider range of products over the next few years, again with CES 2018 as a likely near-term showcase of the trend of the market," Abbruzzese said.
Smart clothing in the enterprise
"Worker safety and monitoring will always be the driving force for enterprise smart clothing. There is the secondary benefit of potential worker efficiency increase from certain device types, but for the most part any worker efficiency improvement will stem from products like smart glasses and smartwatches, while worker safety will be predominant for clothing for monitoring vitals, location, environmental dangers, etc.," Abbruzzese said.
Johnson said, "This is where I truly see the market going. Applications for worker safety, military uses, and other industry-specific use cases (medical, labor, etc.). The value here is immediately apparent and much easier to implement than trying to make our clothing do everything a smartphone or tablet can do for average consumers. This is why Google Glass is having a resurgence in the enterprise space: clear use cases and an easy to implement form factor."
There's plenty of opportunity for smart clothing in the enterprise. "We've been involved in work safety research for many years. The first scientific results have been published in 2016, and enterprises are now becoming aware of smart clothing's potential to improve training and safety," said Pierre-Alexandre Fournier, co-founder and CEO of Hexoskin.
The top three takeaways for TechRepublic readers
- The smart clothing market will top 31 million units shipped annually by 2022, increasing from just under 5 million in 2017.
- Smart clothing has yet to reach mass market appeal, but it's a growing industry because of consumer applications within the sports, fitness, and wellness markets.
- There are enterprise applications for smart clothing in regards to worker safety and monitoring.
- The future of wearables and their role in the workplace (TechRepublic)
- CES 2016 wearables roundup: Smartwatches, activity trackers, clothing and more (TechRepublic)
- Enterprise wearables predicted to top $55 billion by 2022, driven by advances in data security (TechRepublic)
- Wearable Technology: It's here to stay, but it has a dark side (TechRepublic)
- 17 ways the Internet of Things is changing the world (TechRepublic)
- RealWear debuts a new wearable tablet for the enterprise (TechRepublic)
- Can Samsung's $1.2 billion investment launch the era of 'human-centered' IoT? (TechRepublic)
- CES 2017: Photos of the best wearables for business, fitness and sports (TechRepublic)
Teena Maddox is a Senior Writer at TechRepublic, covering hardware devices, IoT, smart cities and wearables. She ties together the style and substance of tech. Teena has spent 20-plus years writing business and features for publications including People, W and Women's Wear Daily.