This September 19, The Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator's Executive Director, Debera Johnson, hosted This Is Not a Sweater: Smart Garments & Functional Fabrics, a panel discussion including wearable tech leaders Olivia Burca of Wearable X, Chris Kasabach of the Watson Foundation, and Yuchen Zhang of Wearable Media. Over one hundred curious consumers and innovators gathered to enjoy wine, view the results of the BFDA’s Tek-Tiles project, and listen to these experts discuss the direction and limitations of the wearable technology industry.
Debera Johnson kicked off the evening with a provocative question: "How do we take the apparel industry, that has been profoundly neglectful, and shift it to doing things the right way?"
The intersection of technology and fashion can be an opportunity to reduce the negative social and environmental impact of two traditionally destructive industries. The solution is not obvious, but according to Debera, “The BFDA is a place of hope, and we need places of hope...The Brooklyn Accelerator strives to connect innovation to impact... The sweater of our future is not the sweater of our past.”
Chris Kasabach explained to the audience, “Wearables don't need to be connected, but being able to connect to the Internet makes products more powerful. It means a user can hold on to products for a long time without them becoming obsolete.” Wearable technology’s capacity for software updates and modularity may reduce the amount of e-waste the wearable tech industry creates.
The connected power of our environment might seem scary. What about data security? The benefits of collecting the cookie crumbs of data trails each individual leaves all over the internet, is that they can be used to generate connected global learning between devices. One example provided was if one person gets in a car accident, they may learn how to drive smarter next time, but when a driverless car gets in an accident, all driverless cars learn from the mistake and improve safety standards.
Developing wearable technology challenges interdisciplinary teams in many ways; manufacturing, the fickleness of fashion, the fickleness of technology, breathability, accuracy and durability represent just a few barriers to creating popular and functional smart garments. After great amounts of expensive research and development solve the initial problems of a wearable tech product, creative technologist and engineers work hard to make these products affordable to the mainstream.
Nadi X, for example, is a pair of yoga pants with built in sensors and haptic feedback to help guide users into correct yoga positions and track their practice. The pants are waterproof, the battery is comfortably tucked behind the knee, and aesthetically Nadi X pants are on trend. Olivia Burca, one of the garment engineers behind the product explains that the price tag of $299 is the absolute lowest it can go, at least for now. This product category is just too new to be cheap. Each component gets custom designed, with no precedents to test against, and no mass manufacturers well versed in the complex production methods.
This exciting panel discussion highlighted how far away mainstream smart garments stand from reality, and how far they’ve progressed from their clunky beginnings. We will see more wearable technology appearing in medical applications, manufacturing processes, and athletic training this coming decade, but to innovators desiring to integrate technology into fashion, please be patient and keep pushing forward. The possibilities continue to expand every day.