Wearable technology goes next level: 'We've already become cyborgs'

Etextiles are redefining what clothes can do, like a digital jumpsuit that lights up when an asteroid passes by Earth. Weird or want it?

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In October 2023, at the Adobe Max conference in Los Angeles, Christine Dierk walked onto stage in a light-grey strapless dress. The fabric consisted of tiny, shiny scales and a scalloped hemline that ended just below her knees. Dierk told the audience that she wanted to introduce Project Primrose, a digital dress that brings fabric to life.

“Unlike traditional clothing, which is static, Primrose allows me to refresh my look in a moment,” she said. Dierk snapped her fingers and the scales on the dress flipped. Suddenly, she was wearing a dark-silver dress. Met with “oohs” and loud applause from the audience, Dierk then touched a button hidden near her stomach, changing her dress to a striped light and dark grey pattern. She touched her stomach again, and the gown switched to a triangle pattern.

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“That is wild,” said the announcer. “I mean, come on, that’s crazy.”

A few days later, tech media website Computer Network (CNET) posted a clip of the video in a TikTok. The responses online were divided. “I just want to feed my family and afford gas,” wrote one user. “But can you play Doom on it?” asked another. Someone else chimed in: “One of those things everyone likes but nobody gonna buy.”

And that is exactly the debate that electronic textiles — fabrics with electronics like batteries, lights and sensors embedded within them — are facing. These high-tech fashions are increasingly being introduced to mainstream audiences, but their future depends on how far the public is willing to go when it comes to blending clothing with tech.

Electronic textiles, or etextiles, are redefining what clothes can do. You can change your dress instantly on stage in front of thousands. You can wear yoga pants that tell you how long to hold in each position. You can even get your scarf to play beautiful orchestral music as it keeps you warm. But it all begs one question: Who is willing to buy clothes that do things like that?

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Etextiles are far from new within the fashion industry. As far back as 1884, The New York Times reported on “electric girls” who wore lights on their foreheads and batteries concealed within their clothing. They could be hired to light up stages and homes. In 1985, Harry Wainwright invented the first fully animated sweatshirt, which could play a colour-animated cartoon right on its surface. Fast forward to the 21st century and things like the Levi’s Commuter Jacket by Google allow wearers to play music, take pictures and answer calls using just their jacket sleeve. Owlet Dream Socks monitor how well babies sleep at night. Sometimes etextiles are just fun, particularly if you’re under the age of 12 and obsessed with light-up shoes.

Google's Levis commuter e-textile jacket
Chris Dancy wears Levis Google commuter jacket that allows the wearer to communicate using their sleeve.

The FitBit was one of the first pieces of wearable tech to go mainstream. A smartwatch that tracks daily physical activity, it was first launched in 2009 and has amassed billions of dollars in sales to date. Six years later, Apple introduced its Apple Watch — and the early response was that the device was merely a status symbol, a pricey “it” item that no one actually needed. But today, even at a price tag ranging from $329 to $1,700, the Apple Watch boasts over 100 million users globally and has earned a spot as a wardrobe staple for many.

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Not all etextile products have achieved such success, however. In March 2023, Google officially stopped selling Google Glass, a pair of tech glasses that allowed wearers to browse the web, take pictures, answer texts and more. The glasses garnered a lot of criticism, particularly due to privacy concerns. Plus, Google Glass looked weird — a combination of cyborg meets mad scientist. In comparison, smartwatches actually look like a watch. They’re small and customizable, and interactions with them are discreet.

Early wearable tech experiences showed that people were willing to pay for these types of products, but only when the devices achieved a certain status, offered benefits and didn’t look too weird.

When it comes to what etextiles can do, the sky’s the limit — literally. Yuchen Zhang, New York-based co-founder of Wearable Media, created a jumpsuit called Ceres, which vibrates and lights up every time an asteroid passes by Earth. It does this by gathering real-time data from NASA’s Near Earth Object API, a database that collects info on asteroids and feeds details into a tiny puck-shaped device on the back of the suit. The suit then vibrates and glows with LED lights when an asteroid is nearby.

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Etextile jumpsuit by Ceres
Yuchen Zhang’s digital jumpsuit lights up when an asteroid passes by Earth.

Zhang says the idea for Ceres came about by envisioning what types of information people may want to know in a world where space travel is normalized. “What if our clothing is actually a source of information of what’s going on in outer space?” she explains. “It’s speculative design…we’re envisioning the future through an object.”

In Toronto, Kate Hartman, director of the Social Body Lab at the Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCAD), creates pieces like the Gut Listener, a bright-green wrap-around belt with a stethoscope-like attachment that allows the wearer to listen to the sounds of their own insides. She describes the belt as more of a creative project than an object intended for sale; provocation rather than productization is how she phrases it. She wanted to design something that would allow wearers to better relate to their bodies.

Hartman has been working with etextiles for over 15 years, designing products that “make technology conform to our body space rather than the other way around,” she says. The result is an eclectic mix of novelty projects. She’s made Superhero communicator cuffs, a pair of wrist cuffs that can transmit a wireless signal to light up a partner’s matching set of cuffs. She’s also created Monarch, attachable shoulder wings that expand and contract based on the wearer’s muscle movements.

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extile butterfly wings move with the wearers' movements
OCAD’s Kate Hartman’s Monarch shoulder wings move with the wearer’s muscle movements. Photo by Kate Hartman

Hartman says that a new chapter of etextiles is underway, with a deeper blending of fashion with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Scientists and creatives can make clothes do things previously unimaginable, from the playful to the uncomfortable. She likes the fact that her designs make people giggle, even if they are not destined to be the next Apple Watch. “To me, laughter is never a bad thing,” she says.

The future of etextiles for the everyday lies in producing items that meet a specific need rather than selling gimmicks that are designed to look cool, says Sigrid Rotzler, etextile researcher and PhD student at the Technical University Berlin. Health monitoring, especially, may be the best bet for widespread adoption of etextiles, she adds. For example, patients who live in rural areas without access to health-care facilities would benefit from clothing that has telemedicine and remote monitoring capabilities. “Being healthy is one of the most important issues we face as humans,” says Rotzler. “So, for that application, it totally makes sense.”

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Digital health technologies are gaining steam, thanks to both private and public funding. In 2023, the Canadian federal government announced $1.5 million in funding for Myant, a etextile manufacturer in Ontario. They create materials like pressure, temperature and chemical sensors for health monitoring, disease management and workplace safety. Myant also launched their own direct-to-consumer undergarment technology, which includes health tracking bras and chest bands for cardiovascular disease management.

Celebrities and influencers — the people who drive pop culture trends — will play a large role in bringing non-health focused etextiles to the forefront, says Olivia Prior, a professor of Wearables and Physical Computing at OCAD. She points to Burning Man festival, a week-long event of music, dancing and “radical self expression,” as a hotspot where etextiles have taken off. Attendees often wear LEDs embedded in their clothing, resulting in scenes of hundreds of brightly lit shirts, jackets and hats bouncing in the desert.

Thirteen years ago, Imogen Heap, a British musician and producer, co-created MiMU gloves, fingerless gloves made of mesh, fabric and wires, connected to a small box on each wrist. With them, she makes music as she moves her hands through the air. In 2015, the gloves were released to the public and have since been used by musicians like Ariana Grande.

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Celebrities have often been the early adopters of etextiles; Beyonce was one of the first stars to wear the Apple Watch in 2015 — a solid gold one with a hefty price attached. The Met Gala, one of the most buzz-worthy events of the year, saw Katy Perry wearing an LED dress back in 2009. Claire Danes followed suit, wearing a light-up ballgown by Zac Posen in 2016. And an LED-lit Tommy Hilfiger Cinderella gown hit the carpet in 2019 on the body of Zendaya.

But are these creations really feasible for the general population?

It tells me what I did well and what I could’ve done better

Chris Dancy

Chris Dancy thinks so. They’re known as The Most Connected Person on Earth, having used wearable tech for over 15 years. They capture over 1,000 data points about themselves and their surroundings at any moment during the day. Dancy, who goes by the pronoun they, uses a mix of sensors and devices like smartwatches, glasses, smart clothing and motion sensors. They’ve also made their own etextile creations, including a pair of GPS shoes that vibrate to indicate which direction to walk in. Dancy uses etextiles to track health and safety, but also their emotional wellbeing. They’ve even built their own AI life coach based on years of data capture. “It tells me what I did well and what I could’ve done better,” says Dancy.

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Dancy says that etextiles are being increasingly picked up by the general population to improve safety. They point to alert systems built into school backpacks, light-up clothing for nighttime runners and temperature-adaptive clothing. “All of Apple’s big innovations lately have been safety related — emergency calling, crash detection,” they say. “That’s where all new etextiles are gonna go.”

Rob Spence, Canadian filmmaker, created a prosthetic eye for himself with a built-in video camera after losing his eye in a shotgun accident. He uses it to capture footage for his documentaries and films, and even created a version that can glow red like the Terminator, just for fun. Spence believes that etextiles’ time has come. After all, people are already carrying smartphones with them everywhere. “We’ve already become cyborgs of sorts,” he says.

Spence says the public is willing to blur the lines between their bodies and technology. Body enhancement has become normalized through things like plastic surgery and non-surgical tweaks that people do to their bodies and faces. “(Technology) has become a form of art, like a tattoo or an earring,” he says. “It’s entered the fashion consciousness and the coolness consciousness.”

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“(Technology) has become a form of art, like a tattoo or an earring

Rob Spence

Etextiles are the polar opposite of fast fashion, which relies on cheap materials and labour for speedy mass production. For etextiles, the manufacturing process requires precise and costly manual labour. Getting the tech to work properly and safely within fabrics can also be a challenge. For the wearer, etextiles can be hard to maintain and clean.

But one of the biggest challenges is the risk of environmental damage, according to Rotzler. The deeper the electronics are integrated with fabrics, the harder they become to detach and remove, creating difficulties with clothing repair. This increases the likelihood that they’ll end up in the landfill.

If the etextile movement is going to go mainstream, the next target must be reducing its environmental footprint. That’s currently where much of etextile research is focused. “There’s more research going into carbon-based materials that are less damaging than metals that you have to extract from the Earth,” Rotzler explains. “Now, a lot of research funding asks for sustainability solutions.”

For the average person, the best answer to the future of etextiles may lie in the comment section under the TikTok video of the Adobe Primrose dress. Some people see it as fun, imaginative and a great opportunity for advertising. Others,  well, they’d be happy with an affordable home and a simple dress with pockets.

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Nahid Widaatalla is a senior analyst at a hospital network in Toronto specializing in digital health and health equity and a fellow in the Fellowship in Journalism and Health Impact at the University of Toronto.

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