In the 1970’s, a stunning and innovative product entered the world—it was a calculator watch and it became the first of what is now termed as “wearable” technology.
Fast forward to today, and we’ve graduated from wristwatches that do basic math to ones that track our sleep, notify us of texts, track our steps, and sync data to our devices… among other things.
Now, we’re seeing the technology behind wearables extend into an even bigger arena: “smart” clothes, or clothing products created with sensors woven into the material that gather data and send it to a connected device through Bluetooth.
In fact, just this summer Tommy Hilfiger has launched a new range of smart clothing that tracks your movements and sends data about you to its connected app.
This clothing line isn’t the first to incorporate data-gathering technology into its very threads, and it certainly won’t be the last.
What other companies are creating clothing that’s smart enough to gather and deliver data about its wearers? And what does this mean in terms of protecting our data privacy?
These Clothes Know A Lot About You
In the past, a normal shopping trip for clothes would entail going to the nearest mall to dig out a jacket from a pile, fork over the cash, and then feel like a forward-thinking fashionista because the sleeves on that thing were bedazzled.
But a lot has changed since then (besides bedazzled clothing). Today, many consumers turn to their computer or mobile device to scroll through the pages of their favorite shop and the items that they buy actually seem like something from the future.
We’re turning to our tech gadgets to order more tech gadgets that also double as clothing—in fact, our clothes are getting “smarter.”
There are several new wearables that are learning a lot about us.
1. Clothing That Knows Where You Go
Tommy Hilfiger has been a familiar name for many denim-wearers over the ages, but now the company is going from classic to futuristic with its new line of clothing called Tommy Jeans Xplore, which features 23 pieces of wearable technology.
The line includes items like baseball caps, denim jackets, and jeans, and each item is fitted with Bluetooth technology. Every time you wear one of the pieces, it can track where it’s being worn and how often it’s being worn—sending that data to be collected by the company.
2. Clothing That Knows What Your Morning Commute Is Like
In 2016, Levi’s and Google teamed up to create a denim jacket that allows the wearer to operate smart functions like screening calls, navigating directions, or controlling audio by linking up to a mobile device via Bluetooth.
What’s more, the 2018 update adds on the ability to drop a pin and save your location, be alerted when your Uber is on its way and when it arrives, and it provides an “Aware Mode” to pick up surrounding sounds and send them to the user’s ear through supported headphones (ideal for bicyclists).
The jacket is made with Touch-sensitive Jacquard Thread that enables the material to respond with just a touch of the hand. It’s a new type of garment that incorporates Google engineering—you just need the Jacquard app and a Google account to fully utilize the jacket’s features.
So for those who enjoy an easier way to operate those smart functions normally done on a smartphone, this jacket takes the freedom of a mobile smart phone even further—onto their very bodies.
3. Clothing That Acts Like Your Personal Trainer
Under Armour’s new line of connected sneakers takes the innovation of your average fitness app even one step further (pun intended). Gone is the need for that clunky step counter tied to your shoelaces—with a pair of connected sneakers, it can track your speed, stride, path, and pace simply through the material that it’s made of.
Its Bluetooth capabilities connect it to the UA MapMyRun app, which users can access in order to see the data that the shoes collect during every run and every workout. It even provides users with the opportunity to “connect”—that is, to find other runners nearby or to allow live tracking so that your friends can follow your run.
It’s pretty much equivalent to having your personal trainer run right behind you as they record your stats.
4. Clothing That Can Remember How To Open Your Front Door
Researchers at the University of Washington developed a “smart” fabric that can be programmed to open doors with nothing more than the swipe of a cuff.
The fabric is made with conductive thread to create embroidery that is magnetizable, which can then be programmed with a magnet in sections of positive or negative poles that will then represent the zeros and ones of digital passcodes.
The result is that the code can be read by a sensor, which may then unlock your front door.
It’s technology that’s similar to conventional keycards many companies use. But unlike keycards that can get misplaced or forgotten… well, you don’t usually forget to put on a shirt, right?
With every influx of new data comes a swarm of those who would do anything to get their hands on it. Most “smart” clothing currently relies on Bluetooth technology, which is hackable and not the safest way to transport data (even Fitbit’s bands proved to be vulnerable to hackers).
If your device is hacked via Bluetooth, the hacker can access and download personal data, install malware, and even make purchases.
In fact, it was reported last month that millions of devices were discovered to have a serious vulnerability with their Bluetooth capabilities. The vulnerability exposed consumers to potential leaks of private data from Apple, Google, and Intel-based smartphones, and resulted from a missing check on part of the encryption process.
Already, many of us are faced with how to protect the data on our desktop computers, our laptops, our phones, our tablets, and our watches…are we ready for the responsibility of also protecting the data produced from our clothing?
Is This Smart Technology That’s Too Close For Comfort?
Clothes that unlock doors, know your location, analyze your health…. this is a realm of “smart” clothing that is still being explored. Like much of today’s technology, it’s way more fun to think about the cool things your gadgets can do instead of the scary amounts of information that they are collecting from you.
Smart gadgets are revolutionizing the way we do, well, everything. And in order to enjoy their capabilities, information is needed in order to analyze, assess, and improve their functions.
But is technology like these “smart” clothes worth it? Are we trading private data for fashion?
In today’s day and age, much has already been traded for data: mobile freedom, ease of living, and the capability of keeping up with multiple tasks throughout every moment of our day.
When the arrival of smartphones set us free from being tethered down by desktop computers, that groundbreaking freedom started a journey down mobile technology that has now led to the clothes on our backs and our very limbs.
No longer do we always have to grab our phones to drop a pin or answer a call— now all we have to do is shift an arm, and the action is done.
But every smart tool generates data, and that data is invaluable for companies, researchers, engineers, and designers who are busy taking the world farther down the road of tech innovation.
The question is: how much data are you willing to hand over as you too venture further down the road of smart technology?
The Privacy Dilemma
The thing with mobile devices is that you can always set it down, turn it off, or put it away in order to disconnect. But with clothes, that’s a little bit harder to do.
Wearables completely change the data privacy game.
Even though we are just at the beginning of exploring the potential of “smart” clothing, it would be good to keep in mind the future privacy issues that will need to be addressed as wearables develop more and more.
For those who choose to wear today’s Bluetooth-connected clothing, keep in mind the vulnerability of a Bluetooth connection. In general, a good rule of thumb is to keep your device’s Bluetooth off when you don’t need it, especially if you’re in busy areas.
And also remember that those wearables you’re sporting are data-generating devices with amazing capabilities…and also amazing vulnerabilities, if you’re not careful.
We’re living in a fast-paced world of both tech advancements and tech mistakes.
How much control over your data do you actually have if even moving your right arm could mean generating a small bit of data?
Where will we be in ten years, or even five?
Our gadgets are getting smarter every year, and apparently, so are our jeans.