A couple of decades ago, the concept of mainstream, wearable technology seemed like something straight out of a science-fiction story. However, wearable devices are now part of the mass market, blasting past the early adoption phase. In just the last several years, wearable adoption skyrocketed. By the end of 2022, predictions show that there will be more than a billion connected wearable devices worldwide!
Getting to this point wasn't easy, and there's plenty of room for improvement. Design trends continue to evolve, creating a market ripe with opportunity. While fitness trackers, watches, and even glasses are getting their time in the spotlight, one unique form of wearable technology is on the brink of delivering some game-changing benefits.
We're talking about smart fabric.
What is Smart Fabric?
Also known as electronic textiles or e-textiles, some consider smart fabrics the next major innovation in wearable technology. Like other devices you might be familiar with, these fabrics combine convenience and wearability with the high-tech functionality of modern electronics. Essentially, these textiles look and feel like standard fabrics but contain sensors, complex circuitry, and a host of other tech components.
Right now, this technology can feel as far away as smartwatches did decades ago. But believe it or not, tech-filled fabrics are nothing new. Early concepts came to be near the end of the 19th century, and one of the first truly integrated microcontrollers for textiles appeared in the mid-1990s.
It's been a big part of emerging fashion trends and entertainment, too. The adoption of intelligent textiles in the entertainment industry is stronger than ever, leading to awe-inspiring artwork.
But of course, this technology is also expanding to other sectors. The potential uses for intelligent fabrics are broad. Here are just a few applications where this tech is already making a big splash.
The most well-researched use of e-textiles is in the field of healthcare. Wearable medical devices have already revolutionized the way providers monitor and care for patients. But e-textiles could take those existing concepts to a new level.
We currently have access to wearable devices that are fully capable of tracking several aspects of a person's health. Sensors can monitor everything from body temperature to heart rate, providing valuable insight that providers can use to make crucial healthcare decisions.
However, better implementation of biosensors and chemical sensors in smart fabrics could lead to even more precise data gathering. Physicians can get a more accurate view of a person's health, detect potential triggers, and identify early symptoms.
Ultimately, discrete sensors in e-textiles can help healthcare providers be proactive about a patient's needs, allowing them to provide a more accurate diagnosis and treatment options. For example, although a watch can measure EKG when you reach over and touch it with the other hand, it does not measure EKG continuously.
Smart shirts or pants using e-textiles are already doing continuous EKG monitoring without having an adhesive patch attached to the body.
Personal and Work Safety
Smart textiles can also become a game-changer for personal safety. Sensors built into these innovative fabrics can provide detailed measurements about the environment and the wearer.
In a workplace setting, technology can become a part of employee uniforms. The sensors can monitor working conditions and biological markers to ensure that workers are safe. Should the sensors pick up potentially dangerous triggers, workers can take action to avoid injury or illness.
The technology may lead to fewer workplace accidents and even long-term damage due to harmful exposure. Wearable devices are already being used on employees in dangerous environments to ensure they are not too hot, exhausted, or injured.
Companies and trainers are already utilizing this technology to improve the performance of athletes. At the end of 2020, tech-integrated fabrics for the sports and fitness market had a value of about $0.68 billion. Projections show that number growing substantially in the next few years.
There are tons of applications for sports. However, the technology is most commonly used to monitor biomarkers and record physical movements. Tracking movement is nothing new, but smart fabrics give trainers more precise information than ever before without interfering with movement.
This technology provides valuable data about an athlete's form, which they can use to fine-tune their performance and avoid injury. It's about making incremental changes that turn average athletes into super-athletes.
How Does Smart Fabric Work?
There are many ways to create smart textiles, and designs continue to improve. But at its core, e-textiles combine soft and pliable fibers with conductive threads. More advanced fabrics utilize metamaterials, sensors, and other advanced components.
While no official classification system exists, those who work with this technology typically separate smart fabrics into different categories based on their purpose.
The most basic type of tech-filled fabric is an aesthetic textile. As you can probably guess from its class name, this technology is all about creating a different look. The fashion industry utilizes it most to develop changing patterns and light-emitting fabrics.
Aesthetic e-textiles don't have much functionality, but they're prevalent in the world of entertainment.
Passive Smart Fabrics
Also known as "first-generation e-textiles," passive smart fabrics contain the technology to gather data about environmental conditions. They have a slew of implemented sensors to pick up information about temperature, UV exposure, and more.
This classification is referred to as "Passive" because it doesn't have the means to do anything about the information it collects. It can tell you that the fabric is getting a ton of sun exposure, but it won't do anything to fix that problem.
Active Smart Fabrics
Active smart fabric is more complex than the previous classification. Not only does it have sensors to read data, but it has actuators to take action. That's why it's referred to as an "Active" smart fabric. You may also hear this technology described as "second-generation e-textiles."
This type of fabric often requires a power source to perform specific functions.
Lastly, we have ultra-smart fabrics or "third-generation e-textiles." This classification is the epitome of "smart" fabric. In addition to recording data and taking action, it can monitor external stimuli and take proactive action. Think of it as a piece of cloth with a brain for cognition, reasoning, and reactive capabilities.
Ultra-smart fabric is the most complex. Some experts in the field believe that this advanced technology will be the one that gets widespread adoption and implementation.
Many challenges prevent ultra-smart fabrics from becoming mainstream, but developers are constantly making improvements that bring us closer to that reality.
The Promising Future of Smart Fabric
Smart fabrics are still in their infancy, but developers and tech designers are making great strides. Projections show that the intelligent textiles market will grow to a staggering $6.6 billion by 2026.
While we're still several years away from widespread adoption, the future looks very bright! Already, we see impressive innovations that include vast networks of wearable sensors, more efficient data transmission, and surprising power efficiency. This technology is poised to push us even further into the new digital age.
Want to get a head-start and create cutting-edge wearables? Turn to Voler Systems. Our team has decades of experience pushing the boundaries of wearable technology. We're well-versed with sensors, ultra-low power design, wireless communications, and more. Reach out today to learn more about turning your product ideas into a reality.