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How Wearable Technology Works


Fashion Meets Form
A model walking the cat walk during South Korea’s Ubiquitous Fashionable Computer fashion show in 2006. Obviously, clothing-based tech has to be more wearable than this to catch on with the masses.
A model walking the cat walk during South Korea’s Ubiquitous Fashionable Computer fashion show in 2006. Obviously, clothing-based tech has to be more wearable than this to catch on with the masses.
© Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

One of the primary challenges of wearable technology lies in making it less visible and less, well, dorky. For starters, let's talk looks.

Whether you're a fashionista, hipster or Wall Street huckster, fashion matters. Your choice of clothing provides social cues to others about who you are as a person. And in a world where no one -- no one -- is cool enough to pull off a Bluetooth cellphone headset, manufacturers know that their products must have a certain amount of sex appeal, otherwise they'll draw ceaseless chortles and rolled eyes.

The Move tank top is a prime example of wearable tech being both functional and fashionable. This stretchy garment looks like a hip yoga outfit, but it's interlaced with sensors and actuators to help you improve your workout form. Bend too far for a specific yoga move, and the Move gently buzzes the offending area of your body. The end result is better form and reduced chance of injury, all combined into an outfit that draws eyes in a good way.

In stark contrast, Google Glass and its brethren offer a nerdy cyborg look that a lot of people find annoying. Until they are sleeker and less obtrusive, these kinds of devices may struggle to find mass appeal.

Function is another matter entirely. Intertwining electronics with fabrics brings to mind that horrible shirt tag itch, times 10. The skin recoils at the thought of sensors scratching away, all day long. But engineers are surmounting comfort and user-friendliness issues.

Researchers at the Polytechnic School in Montreal have built touch-sensitive controls right into clothing. They coated copper wires with polymer in a size small enough (less than a millimeter in diameter) to be woven into textiles that, notably, are made with legacy manufacturing processes.

The end result could be a shirt that changes the volume of your headphones. Or a car seat that you swipe to change the seat position, or perhaps turn the heater up or down. These fabrics wash just like any other type of material, an important trait when battling the dirt and stains of everyday life.

Of course, electronics without a power source are rather pointless. The same researchers have also found a way to make a soft, flexible lithium-ion battery that looks a lot like artificial leather. This material, too, can be woven into clothes to power a range of gadgets, providing hundreds of volts throughout the day. A washable version is in the works as of early 2014.


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