Smart Clothing Could Be Surprisingly High Tech

Smart watches, smart locks, smartphones, and smart plugs are all products you probably are familiar with — but now you can add smart clothes to the list as well. These garments are embedded with smart technology and look just like regular clothes, except that they have conductive fibers and sensors woven directly into the fabric.

You may think that smart clothing is a fairly recent development, but it's a science that has been around for hundreds of years. According to researchers, the first generation of smart clothing was made by craftsmen wrapping metallic threads over regular fabric threads. Even Queen Elizabeth I had several gowns woven with gold and silver conductive threads. When electricity became mainstream at the end of the 19th century, designers started to fuse electricity with clothing and jewelry to create fashion like motorized hats and evening dresses that could light up.

Today, major brands such as Levi, and Under Armour offer smart fashion choices such as jackets, hoodies, t-shirts, and sleepwear. But, they can be pricey, and you may have to pay through the nose if you want to add some of these technologically enhanced pieces to your wardrobe.

It can make you warmer or cooler

Most people have come in contact with moisture-absorbing fabric designed to absorb sweat and keep you cool. But, now scientists from the University of Maryland have taken it one step further by designing a smart textile that can automatically warm or cool you based on the temperature outside, according to Scientific American.

University of Maryland researchers, YuHuang Wang and Ouyang Min developed a fabric from infrared-sensitive yarn that reacts to temperature and humidity. Wang told the Royal Society of Chemistry's publication, Chemistry World, that he was inspired to make this technology after pondering how temperature-sensitive clothing "could be a solution to save energy in buildings." He said, "It was an 'aha' moment. I was looking at the blinds in my office window and it occurred to me that we need a switch for our clothes."

So, how does it work? When the fabric detects sweat, the nanotubes in the fabric activate and bring the carbon strands in the fabric come closer together to make it more breathable. If the wearer feels too cold or dry, the strands will do the opposite and expand to get more heat (via Scientific American).

Smart clothing can track a wearer's movements

MIT researchers from the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab have developed clothing that can sense movement and posture. The clothing is made from special fibers that can "sense pressure from the person wearing the garment," according to a blog on their website. They refer to this new tech as "tactile electronics," which they can use to make fashion staples such as socks, full vests, and gloves.

These researchers want to bring tactile electronics into the mainstream so they can be produced on a mass scale like other clothing on the market today. They believe their clothes would be beneficial for athletic training and rehabilitation. Also, the group pointed out that their clothes could be useful for anyone who needs continuous monitoring such as residents in assisted-care facilities. Wearing smart clothing would allow caregivers to check if their residents have fallen somewhere or are unconscious.

It seamlessly integrates with digital apps

For people who don't want to fuss with extra devices, wearable technology may be able to satisfy their needs. Recently, Google has forayed into the textile industry through Google ATAP (Google's Advanced Technology and Projects) and developed a connected clothing platform called Jacquard (via Google), which is featured in the Levi's Commuter Trucker Jacket.

Its first project was a collaboration with Levi Strauss in 2015 to make the jacket — denim outerwear that connects to the internet. This jacket was sold for $350 when it was first released and is made from conductive yarn and has a smart sleeve that users can touch if they want to answer a call, get directions, change music playlists, or unlock their phone. Its marketing was aimed primarily at cyclists, who may find it hard to take out their phones while on the road.

According to Google, the textile featured conductive Jacquard thread inside the cuff, and could wirelessly connect to your device via a snap tag. If you have incoming calls or messages, the tag will light up to alert you. Just like any other piece of clothing, the jacket is washable, but you have to remove the smart tag first.