Forget smart watches, are smart textiles and implants the future?

We are only months away from an almighty battle for the smart watch market. Apple is rumoured to be beefing up its iWatch team, Samsung is working on a similar device and Sony has been in the market for a while with its range of watches.

Might however the smart watch be a small blip on the road to something more meaningful like smart textiles or maybe even smart implants?

We spoke to Oliver Stokes, Principle of Design and Innovation at agency PDD who has worked with a number of clients on wearables and new technologies and especially how humans can interact with them in a natural and seamless way. He has some forthright view as on smart watches but thinks the days when get ‘chipped’ might be a few years away yet.

Do you think there is going to be a market for smart watches? Or will they just be a intermediary device with a short shelf life?

The whole concept of the smart watch is an interesting one. We’ve seen previous attempts through products such as the LG GD910 or Sony LiveView SmartWatch, neither of which in my understanding have seen wide adoption. So it’s unclear what a potential Apple or Samsung offer could bring that would inspire people to become more involved. It would seem that much of the functionality is focused on the device becoming effectively a second screen to your smart phone and that I believe is not sufficient, there has to be a greater insight to pull people in. Certainly if Apple were to launch a fully flexible, wrap around screen that we’ve seen in some hypothetical concept renders online then that might ‘persuade’ me to invest!


Do you think that there is a type of wearable gadget that will succeed in the long run?

I feel for true ‘wearables’ to succeed in any category we as consumers need something that is more naturally fitting with our bodies than a clunky box. The product should also be part of an eco-system that can provide sufficient value to us so we’re not moved to forget it.

Explain why you think smart textiles will be more successful that wearable tech? Is it all about the fact that we have to wear clothes, but don’t need to wear glasses or watches?

There is something more discreet about a smart textile compared to an object (Watch / Glasses). Therefore I could see this being an easier category to adopt for us consumers in the social context – if the garment / product is able to provide simple feedback, process tasks without being impacting others then that is potential a more compelling offer.

In the reality of today, an object that you need to interact with and is overt to others, such as Google Glass is really pushing people to rethink about their self-image / body language. We as humans are used to intuitively or through association understanding the cues of body language and interaction. Whether that is facial expressions or the tell-tale white cable that we’ve grown to associate with someone listening to music or talking hands free. We have learnt and built these cues, adapting them to social context, but the reprogramming of this language to suit voice control or the act of ‘staring’ with Google glass may require greater time to become the ‘new normal’.


Are smart textiles mainly about health monitoring and fitness? What are the more consumer focused/fun uses for them?

The great rise in sensor technology and reduction in price, plus the natural role of a smart textile in apparel lends itself more naturally to health and fitness – it’s an obvious link. But as technologies develop we can see that the role or opportunities for smart textiles start to broaden. Imagine in the future a fabric that could change colour or pattern and the impact that could have on fashion (both visually and commercially) – concepts like that would really start to push smart textiles away from just monitoring / reporting on your physical performance

Might textiles also be an intermediary technology as we one day are embedded with chips in our bodies? What might need to occur to make this happen?

‘Implantables’ have been around for over 10 years, with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) having approved certain RFID technologies back in 2003/4. So the idea of having some implanted is not that new or outlandish in certain sectors especially when you think of how long pacemakers have been around. But to imbed a technology for consumer application opens up a whole new area of challenges and opportunities. Already ‘life hackers’ are self-imbedding RFID tags in their hands so they can automatically open their car or house. But when you consider the rapid pace of technology at present, that I change my phone every year and could change every three months if I were to hop brands to keep up-to-date. Then you start to wonder if ‘injectables’, ‘implantables’ that may need ‘upgrading’ each year is realistic in the short term. ‘Ingestables’ on the other hand could be a different again. As Motorola presented at D11, the passcode pill that lasts day to authenticate your life is potentially interesting as are sub dermal circuit boards that dissolve over time. So on that basis, maybe there is an opportunity for these products to have a limited life span. Ultimately the age of the human cyborg is maybe still many social debates and years away!

I am particularly interested in how smart textiles can interact with machines. is there an example of how they might work with say cars in the future?

I’m not aware of any major projects that involve smart textiles in cars, but the BMW GINA light visionary model of 2008 or ‘shape shifting car’ is an interesting concept that could be combined with a smart textile to allow shape and colour change (Exterior and Interior). The automotive sphere is certainly one where smart textiles could play an interesting role once they become more developed.


Can you give me a timespan for when you think smart textiles will be mainstream?

I see many programmes in the public domain that are exploring smart textiles and I’m sure there are many more behind closed doors, but I would propose that smart textiles are probably still 5 years away from real commercialisation

Are there going to be very real savings in health care using smart textiles?

Without surmising an application, it’s tricky to know what benefits they could offer. But certainly healthcare has commonly been an early adopter of new technologies in terms of investment to develop and application. So once we understand more about how they could be applied I’m sure developments of smart textiles in health care will come.

Who are you working with for PDD on smart textiles?

PDD has a history of working with companies across a number of sectors on wearables and other new technologies. But I’m not able to disclose who we are working for and in what areas due to strict confidentiality ethics. You can see a sample of who we have worked with and some examples of our work on the website.

Ashley Norris