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What happens when your clothes talk back to you? (Includes first-hand account)

The much touted Internet of Things, based on cloud computing and interconnected networks of data-gathering sensors, is intended to make everything in our lives from refrigerators to streetlights “smart.” That includes ‘smart’ clothes. Are smart clothes a gimmick, a novelty or do they represent how fashion will look in the future?

Wearable Experiments – We:eX
— is the brainchild of Billie Whitehouse , a vivacious Australian entrepreneur, who describes herself as a “garment engineer” and an “aesthetic specialist.” In a recent appearance at The New Yorker Magazine’s Techfest held in New York’s Chelsea district, she described how she came to launch a company that is trying to push “the boundaries of human-to-human connection via groundbreaking wearable technology.” She learned “the nitty-gritty of design” from her mother, a noted designer herself as well as host of Australia’s Project Runway. She became intrigued by the possibilities of 3D printing and software, but the board of her mother’s company wasn’t responsive to her ideas, considering them too unconventional. “I started thinking about how clothing could do more than protect you from the sun and the elements,” she told Refinery29. “There are actually endless possibilities for this thing that sits so close to our skin and what it can do for us. I began researching and was really curious if you could build something that would transfer touch over the internet. I had no idea how to do it. I was just so excited about the possibility — I think it was my enthusiasm and excitement that got it over the line.”

So she teamed up with Ben Moir who had the technical knowhow she lacked and founded We:eX, which combines hardware, software and apparel design to make “a seamlessly integrated experience.” She wanted to make apparel that would be responsive to touch while keeping the software unobtrusive, even invisible, but as commonplace as Velcro or nylon. Whitehouse wasn’t interested in repurposing watches like Apple or creating another Nike+ Fuelband or a Jawbone UP band, much less a new iteration of Google Glass, whose rollout wasn’t exactly a stunning success. On the contrary, she was eager to dispense with screens of any kind. She wanted people to feel what was going on in their bodies without having to monitor them. Instead of producing wearables that measure heartbeat or miles walked, “We want to give information back to you. We’re not competing with Nike. We’re not focused on high performance.” She prefers to focus on enhancing her customers’ lifestyle by implementing a technology that empowers them. “Much of haptic technology is testosterone driven,” she said, “but we’re softer.” More poetically, she characterizes her design wear as “art for the skin” and “writing songs for the body.”

We:eX, based in Sydney and New York, has introduced four products to date though they’re all basically beta versions produced for corporations. The company plans to launch its first commercial product next year: a line of yoga tights called Nadi X that in effect uses the skin as an interface to let you know whether you’re in the correct position or not. Microprocessors built into the tights at the hip, ankles and feet use haptic vibrations to provide real time feedback — a “full physical language” – to let you know, for instance, that your leg is at the wrong angle and you need to move it a little to the left.

If you want to get around town without pausing every few blocks to find out whether you’re heading in the right direction then maybe you should consider buying the We:eX’s navigational blazer when it becomes available. It works much like the yoga line; microprocessors built into the jacket are programmed by an app so that your jacket knows where to go. It ‘taps’ you on the shoulder to confirm that you’re going in the right direction, signals whether you should turn left or right, and gives you two taps to let you know that you’re arrived. The ‘language’ of the blazer is based on the frequency and intensity of the vibrations and where on the jacket they occur. “Now you can fall in love with Paris by experiencing it through your eyes, not your screen,” says the company’s website. You can also fall in love with New York and Sydney, but you’re out of luck if you want to use the haptic blazer to navigate the streets of Rome or London or your hometown for that matter. We:eX promises a blazer designed for another major city in the near future.

For sports fans – and they really need to be fanatic – the company has just the thing: The Alert Shirt , originally designed for Foxtel, an Australian TV network. If you get charged up when your team has just scored a goal and start swearing at the screen when it falls behind, the Fan Jersey will heighten the experience exponentially. The Alert Shirt allows you to detect ‘real time haptic vibrations so you can feel the excitement of every highlight in the game,” the company’s website says. It converts data from the game as it’s happening, which is then transmitted using a smartphone app to the electronics within the jersey, which in turn converts the data into “powerful sensations” that simulate live sports action. The objective is to “engage people via television in entirely new ways…connecting humans across vast distances and bringing the emotions, frustrations and joys of the active game to life in a way that we’ve never been able to experience before.” Whitehouse admits that the technology involved is complex – how do you communicate anxiety or excitement? “Everyone knows what a tickle is or what pain is, but we don’t know how to communicate it back.” And would every fan wearing an Alert Shirt want to feel more excited or frustrated than they’d be already? And would a cardiologist need to be consulted before game time?

If We:eX was looking for notoriety it certainly found it in its aptly named Fundawear – underwear that literally allows separated couples to keep in touch. With smartphones couples using Fundawear “can tease, tickle and tantalize” even if they’re thousand miles apart. The sensations are registered thanks to tiny haptic electromagnetic vibrators woven into the close-fitting black garments, which are placed in direct contact with erogenous regions of the body. Couples choose where they want their touch to register by using a template of a male or female body on the screen of their phone. According to the website Spectrum IEEE , “The wearer feels a gentle frisson, or even a light stroke, depending on whether the partner has touched or swiped the screen.” A female tester at a demonstration at the South-by-Southwest festival described it as “a very light vibration, like a touch. It depends on how you touch. If you slide, it’s like a stroke.” To ensure security, the design team used Amazon Web Services to transmit the data between phones, giving each partner a secret key. Men were generally focused on one spot on the female body in particular, Whitehouse noted wryly, while women were more inclined to explore the man’s body.

In an earlier iteration, couples had to agree to notifying his or her partner in the event that one of them chose to use the technology with someone new. For obvious reasons, that condition was later dropped, Whitehouse said.

“Wearable tech and fashion are taking the world by storm,” declared a fashion website in a rundown of the 2014 London fashion shows, “and you can’t move for a new collaboration or venture from outside the traditional tech scene. The catwalks of New York, Milan and now London are increasingly becoming home to the latest wearable devices.” A Jellyfish dress was dubbed “the wearable tech star of the show” in 2014. The dress was actually a slip fabricated from a network of fiber optic cables that carry the light from some high powered LEDs sewn into the fabric. But a year later, the fashion industry’s infatuation with wearable tech seemed to have hit a peak and begun to ebb, Whitehouse admits, but she believes it’s beginning to rebound. Obviously the success of her company depends on it. As she told an interviewer for Refinery29, “I don’t think we’re headed towards an overtly futuristic, sci-fi, and neoprene vibe. We use nostalgia with design — it’s an elegant way of looking back and forward at the same time. My version of futuristic fashion is far more Hogwarts and Harry Potter. Technology is enchanting and can make clothes feel magical. I’d say we’re headed towards a more ethereal place than sci-fi.”

We may soon find out whether tech fashion reaches that ethereal place.

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