Despite analysts predicting three years ago that smart clothing sales would surpass fitness trackers by 7 million units come 2016, the reality is that connected garments still has a long way to go.
While we've got quite the wait before we see everyone walking around in heart-rate monitoring t-shirts, it doesn't mean there's not hundreds of startups out there itching to make it happen. You can't go to a trade show these days without meeting at least one of them.
We spotted a particularly unique one while roaming the show floors of Computex in Taiwan this week, an outfit called Machina is looking to shake up the smart clothing space by not only using connected garments to enhance the gaming experience, but throwing VR into the mix, too.
From illegal to immersive
While Machina's history mirrors that of most companies in the startup phase (numerous failures, unsuccessful attempts and much perseverance), the Mexican startup doesn't have the most conventional of roots. Co-founder Antonio Perdigon was on hand to tell us how the company was born from his fashion brand-creating thesis days of 2011, and how his research on merging fashion and technology had lead him to the conclusion that the apparel industry hadn't innovated in the past 30 years.
This was, besides being a lot of fun, very illegal
"I always had the vision of wearing Back to the Future style apparel, but knowing it was just science fiction I came up with the idea of putting electronics into my designs," said Perdigon. "After taking an interactive product diploma I made my first wearable technology device, which consisted of a wearable pirate radio."
The garment had a small rucksack on the back, adapted for altering FM radio signals in a range of 5km.
"When you turned it on, you could illegally transmit messages to FM radio stations that were in range. This was, besides being a lot of fun, very illegal," he laughed, adding that most of Machina's roots trace back to this project.
Perdigon hadn't done this alone, however, working on the connected apparel projects with the startup's other co-founder Linda Franco. Together they are perhaps best known for their MIDI jacket project, a wearable electronic instrument that doubles as a rain coat.
Our 'out of body experience'
Machina's next project shows some real promise. The pair have now concocted what they are calling the OBE (Out of Body Experience) line of smart clothing, which aims to improve our sense of immersion in virtual environments, amongst other things.
The idea of OBE is simple: use connected garments as the vehicle for the electronics and use the body as an interface. The clothing-sensor mashup is modular, so each sensor is different and compatible with one another. Once you plug the sensors into different garments (t-shirts, hoodies, jerseys, jackets, windbreakers, gloves, whatever) you can attach and detach the sensors in your favourite pieces of clothing.
"We like the idea of re-thinking the concept of clothing," Perdigon adds. "Clothing is incredible; it's something people wear as default. They do not need to make a new habit to wear it so there is a big opportunity to put electronics into them."
The types of sensors built into the fabric combine motion and biometrics with haptic feedback and mechanical buttons using Bluetooth Low Energy for communication. The interaction comes in the form of an app for iOS and Android, where you can select the interaction. This can be anything from smart notifications, making music with your body movements, acting as a controller when you're in VR, flying a drone with your arm movements, controlling your smart home devices remotely, or something most people already associate with smart clothing: fitness tracking.
We were entrusted to test out the OBE smart glove, which linked up a Samsung Gear VR headset over Bluetooth. This then tracked our arm movements in a shoot-em-up type demo, only with much less violent balloon popping as opposed to chest exploding. The sensors on the glove were able to track in the virtual environment where and in what position our hand was in. Accuracy wasn't 100% precise, and at prototype phase this is to be expected, but it did show promise in that it reacted to all our movements, albeit a little more slowly than we would've liked.
Nevertheless, the glove allowed us to aim and point at various balloon targets, and shoot with the simple tap of the glove-mounted action buttons. The shooting action was responsive, but it was slightly difficult to retain aim when shooting.
Our favourite feature was the ability to reload the gun with a fist-pump. This worked well, and didn't make you feel as stupid as it sounds (probably thanks to losing all touch with reality thanks to the VR headset). Although aspects were frustrating, mainly due to latency between the physical and virtual worlds, we do think - once fine tuned - this added dose of immersion could help mobile VR exceed the confines of the standard smartphone and headset combination.
Machina told us it is providing an SDK to developers so they can extend the functionality of the technology and use all of its controls in VR games.
An extension of yourself
While its OBE smart clothing is still in the early development stages, Machina's co-founders are hoping it will one day be developed in line with a future where we all will become integrated with what we wear.
"You will express yourself through 3D-printed clothes; LED clothing with programmable options and even auto-adjustable clothing not just in size but in body temperature. It will be an extension of yourself," explains Perdigon. "The line between man and machine will become blurred. There will be stronger independent generations where style and human expression will take place through wearables. Fashion will represent itself in new ways never ever seen before."
Machina's whole philosophy is built on a belief that a wearable is an intimate device with potential which doesn't end with technology.
"That's where we see Machina's goal: to make smart clothing that amplifies the body capabilities," he adds. "This is just the tip of the iceberg. We have a choice to make, and Machina gives you control over your clothes, over your information, over your life."