Smart clothing has a bright future, with or without Intel

Technology in fashion is having a moment. This is in spite of the fact that Intel appears to essentially be abandoning this space. The company stopped selling the Intel Curie module and Arduino 101 maker kit this month, so makers in the fashion space may soon have to find new ways of sticking high-tech materials into garments. Intel’s wearable tech still had a good run.

Maker fashion has become a hit in some circles over the last few years. One of the proponents of merging technology and fashion is Anina Net, who spoke at a Hardware Massive event in Shenzhen on September 18 while in town for a new project. The Beijing resident is a model-turned-designer who has built up a following in China with her own fashion products like robotic and laser dresses and LED handbags.

Net had her biggest platform yet at this year’s CCTV Spring Festival Gala. About 700 million people watch the event each year. For the event, Net worked with Intel to design smart gloves with 162 LEDs that synched to a dance routine.

Perhaps the biggest moment for Intel’s wearables platform in the US was Lady Gaga’s performance at the 58th Annual Grammy Awards in 2016. Gaga wore digital skin on her face that allowed projected images to track her face creating the impression of animated “digital makeup” along with a Curie-powered smart ring used to control images and holograms displayed behind her.

Despite these efforts, though, it’s understandable why Intel appears to be leaving smart clothing behind. Much of tech-enhanced fashion consists of LEDs embedded in clothing and accessories, which can seem a bit gimmicky. Net is herself involved in some of these designs, but she’s pragmatic about where these products fit into modern life. She is showing the world how sensors, LEDs, solar panels and robotics are becoming part of people’s everyday lives.

At Harware Massive, an audience member asked about the practicality of using small solar panels on a purse to recharge devices. She deftly explained that this isn’t the perfect charging solution for all of a person’s devices, but it does work in a pinch and some people will find that useful. Similarly, she found a market for her LED bags among some people in Europe because of laws that require bicycle riders to have lights at night. If the bike doesn’t have a light on it, riders don’t have to worry if they always have their LED bags on them.

The dresses she showed off were perhaps a bit more on the less practical side. Her robotic dress is designed as a work dress that puffs up into a ball gown for fancier engagements after work. She also showed off a motion dress with LEDs that show patterns according to the movement of the wearer and a laser dress that shoots out light patterns above and below the wearer. Also, like Lady Gaga’s Grammy performance, the laser dress can project light onto the wearer’s face as a kind of makeup.

Anina Net designed the robotic dress to transform from a work dress to a ball gown. (Source: Hanep Creative Studio/Intel)

Anina Net’s motion dress shows light patterns as a person moves. (Source: Hanep Creative Studio/Intel)

Practicality aside, these things all sound and look cool, so it certainly got the interest of the Hardware Massive audience. Yet there is a use for this tech. Cosplayers or runway models might be looking for something extra to wow an audience. Other kinds of smart clothing is also coming to market.

Last year, Google and Levis teased a denim jacket with a smart sleeve that can be used to control audio from a smartphone. The jacket is being marketed for bikers who want  a way of getting directions, controlling music or answering a call without looking at their phone. Project Jacquard (pictured above) is now available for $350. It’s a privilege that doesn’t come cheap, but it exists.

Though much of the attention on wearables has been on devices like watches and glasses, smart clothing is proving to be a viable market. This is why Intel made such a big bet on it. With or without Intel, though, the market marches on.

By one projection from Global Market Insights, the smart clothing industry will reach $4bn by 2024 with shipments growing at a 50 percent CAGR. The biggest driver of this trend is athletics and activity tracking. People want easier ways of monitoring improvements without always remembering to wear a specific device. This technology is also useful for health care as sensors in hospital gowns or other garments could allow for easier means of monitoring patients.

Adopting the Curie module and experimenting with Intel’s wearable tech was probably a smart move for Anina Net and others. It at least offers makers a glimpse into the digitization and connectivity of everything. That will come in useful in the future, even if it’s ultimately not Intel powering our clothing of the future.

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