Are We Ready For Smart Fabrics?

A friend of mine, Jonathan Kohl, has published a 3-part series on Smart Fabrics. It is an excellent series that focuses a lot on the usability challenges for smart fabrics, as well as what good (and bad) could arise when it comes to security, etc. While I left a comment, I thought it was worth expanding on some of the mundane issues that smart fabrics will present.

End Of Life

No, I’m not talking about the user, I’m talking about the garment, piece of furniture or other product that uses smart fabrics. Let’s face it, technology goes out of date. Like fashion, something newer or sexier or trendier will always come along. In other cases, newer features aren’t going to be supported because the computing requirements outpace the existing products. Anything with a non-replaceable battery will find that it no longer holds a charge.

That means that things we have with smart fabrics will have to be disposed of. This has implications, depending on the manner of disposal. Basically, an item can be donated for re-use, recycled or simply tossed in a landfill.

In all cases, you’ll have to remember to wipe any personal data that the item may hold. Part of the vision for smart fabrics includes some kind of history (for medical purposes, maintenance, etc), and some of that history may be kept locally in the item. People have a hard enough time remembering to wipe old phones or PCs before they get rid of them. This adds another burden that people need to be aware of.

Donation is interesting, but if the item is already obsolete, this may be of limited utility. Who wants to go into Goodwill to buy something whose battery won’t hold a charge, or that suffers from security flaw that the manufacturer has failed to fix? If the item is “new enough”, there may be a bit more life in it. But for some things, donation for re-use simply doesn’t make sense.

Tossing these things into a landfill is a bad idea. Some of these things will have materials in them that are toxic to the environment. I guarantee a few manufacturers will fail to think about this when they design and make them. Expect a few to be obsessed with “it’s just too cool” or “it’s so useful”, forgetting about the fact that these things have a limited lifespan.

I Need More Power!

Any computing or display device will require power. For some smart fabrics, their power profile will be such that energy generated by movement (using something like piezo-based generation) or solar power will be sufficient. For others, though, they will require more juice than can be generated as-needed, and that means either capacitors or batteries.

Either way, a battery or capacitor has to have some electrons pumped into them, and that means charging. Having to remember to “plug in your clothes” adds a new dimension to our wardrobe. Certainly, wireless charging of some kind will be a big help here. Being able to charge something while it hangs in a closet will make things a lot easier for people.

But even with charging, in some cases, the life of the battery that can be installed (since you don’t want to drag around a car battery on a cart to get the most out of your SmartJeans) may limit the utility of the item. A battery that can only eke out a few hours of use may be sufficient for something you wear to a party. But if you need to wear it all day (which means around 16 hours for most people), a short battery life becomes an impediment.

Granted, this is likely to change over time. Battery research continues to grow as more and more devices need more power for longer. But the improvement in the life of the battery itself is still proceeding slowly, and a lot of focus is put on using power more effectively. In some cases, the available power (say for a shirt or pair of pants) could mean a developer has to be extremely aggressive with power management.

How Does A Shirt Become Obsolete?

A normal, everyday piece of clothing can become “obsolete” from a taste and fashion sense perspective, but that polyester leisure suit from the 1970’s can still be a functional bit of clothing. A chair from the 1980’s may look tacky today, but it still functions as a chair.

Having something that is obsolete because of the underlying technology is yet another dimension that will be added to anything using smart fabrics. Over time, the computing, display or storage requirements for new features will outstrip older implementations. At some point, maintenance on something old will stop, possibly leaving it with security holes and stability issues. Given that a lot of smart fabric-based products will be from newer companies, the mere fact that some will go away means that you are stuck with whatever your item does (or doesn’t do).

Sure, sure, “open source” can fix this. Right, just like open source has lead to continued maintenance on the tens of thousands of abandoned projects out there today. My Mom is unlikely to crack open a book on coding to fix a security flaw in the firmware for her smart orthotics, and I’m certainly not going to do it. I have better things to do than spend my time fixing outdated firmware for my friends and family.

Why Won’t This Chair Sync?

Then there’s compatibility. Picking out accessories for PCs, tablets and smartphones is one thing. A lot of those are based on standards, and as a result, the new features they can offer is sometimes limited. In some cases, a really cool accessory that you’d love to have is unavailable because it doesn’t work with your machine because of some custom feature or implementation.

Picking out clothing or furniture for the fashion-challenged can be hard enough. But having to find something that will work with your smartphone or PC adds another complication. Sure, it might say “Android compatible”, until you discover that the app developer doesn’t support the older version of Android that came with your “free” phone, or your “free” phone’s version of Bluetooth doesn’t include Low Energy.

What This Means

This all may sound pretty negative. As with any new technology, there are costs and downsides. The smartphone hasn’t been all sunshine and roses. But that doesn’t mean that people need to avoid them at all costs. It’s about taking the good with the bad, because sometimes the good far outweighs any bad that is present.

Smart fabrics have the potential to offer a new dimension to our lives. Where it will truly take hold remains to be seen. Some early work on smart fabrics to help with medical issues easily offset any of these “costs”. But I do expect we’ll see a lot of “technology for technology’s sake” products that have little thought about the long-term consequences for the item or its users. This isn’t a surprise. We humans have a habit of doing this. And sometimes you need to see a lot of floundering around to find something of real value. We’re still struggling with smart watches, their utility and where they may or may not fit without our lives. Expanding this to clothing, furniture or other items simply raises more questions.

There could be some very cool products that use smart fabrics, and we may find that the most useful aren’t those that we expected initially. It is still very early days, and where this leads is still unclear.