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Amanda Parkes on Why Wearable Tech is About More Than Gadgets

BoF speaks to fashion technologist Dr. Amanda Parkes about why smart textiles and fibre science — not gadgets — are the future of wearable tech and how the fashion industry can capitalise.

Amanda Parkes | Source: Courtesy

NEW YORK, United States — For many, the market for “wearables” — often called the next major technology battleground — refers to gadgets worn on the body. The category has yet to truly take off, but devices that monitor health and fitness have emerged as a key vector of growth.

According to a recent report by Gartner, a technology research and advisory firm, shipments of health and fitness tracking wearables are forecast to reach 91.3 million by the end of 2016. But while 19 million of these devices will be “smart wristbands” and 24 million will be “sports watches,” the largest and fastest growing category is expected to be “smart garments,” much like the tech-infused tennis shirt (which monitors heart rate, breathing and stress levels) that Ralph Lauren debuted on ball boys at this year’s US Open. In fact, over the next two years, as shipments of sport watches and smart wristbands are cannibalised by the rise of multi-functional smartwatches like the Apple Watch, shipments of health and fitness tracking “smart garments” are forecast to explode from 0.1 million units in 2014 to 26 million units in 2016.

“Everyone is exploring wearable tech watches and headbands and looking at cool sneakers,” said David Lauren, Ralph Lauren's executive vice president for advertising, marketing and corporate communications, speaking to The New York Times, when the brand’s high-tech shirt was first revealed. “We skipped to what we thought was new, which is apparel. We live in our clothes.”

Indeed, some long-sighted industry observers believe that for wearables to truly take off, technology must become deeply embedded into the clothing we already wear, starting at the level of the fibres and fabrics.

BoF spoke to MIT-trained, Brooklyn-based “fashion technologist” and “wearable tech designer” Dr. Amanda Parkes, chief of technology and research at hybrid fashion incubator Manufacture New York, about why smart textiles and fibre science, not gadgets, are the future of wearable technology and how the fashion industry can capitalise.

BoF: You have been variously described as a “fashion technologist,” a “biomedia designer” and a “wearable tech designer.” What do you do in practical terms?

AP: I work at the intersection of many disciplines, which means I know a little — or sometimes a lot — about a wide range of areas. But fundamentally, I consider myself a designer, solving problems with form, function and beauty. Technology is one kind of enabling tool for this, so I learnt technology as a craft: I know how to code, build circuits, design structures, design garments, understand materials and, more and more, understand biology and chemistry and how to combine these worlds.

In the relationship between technology and the body, I work on very high-level ideas, defining new concepts to shape the industry, but also the more practical and often more difficult processes and details, like connecting fibres to circuits, that enable these new concepts.

BoF: For most people, wearable tech means gadgets worn on the body. You have a more expansive view. How do you define wearable tech?

AP: Most simply, I define wearable tech as enabling interactivity around the body. The Apple Watch is an elegant, state-of-the-art piece of interactive technology and there is a massive market for this. But it exists in the domain of taking a smartphone and attaching it to our body. There are whole new unexplored categories of wearables to come.

It’s important to recognise that we are in the very early stages of this industry. When the Internet first emerged, no one could have conceived of the multiplicity of ways it would change our lives; solve function problems, yes, but also radically change our worldview. Wearables have this kind of potential because our bodies are our most intimate pieces of technology: they are entire ecosystems; they consume and create energy; they store and process data; they sense and communicate with their environments.

Clothing should be our partner in getting through life. It’s up to us to define how we tap into the many modalities of the body through clothing as the interface to help us navigate the world, communicate, entertain or generally bring us greater understanding of ourselves.

Wearable technology does not have to involve traditional circuits and batteries. The industry, right now, is pretty divided between the concept of wearables as devices and fibre science (wearables as materials). Fibre science is wearable technology in its purest form and I think the development of new smart textiles combining multiple layers of functionality is where this distinction will start to fade.

BoF: As smart textiles begin to gain ground, what kinds of things will become possible? What do you expect to see?

AP: True integration of fibres and electronics. With continued advances in material science and nanotech processes, we can now construct textiles with fully integrated circuits as well as the material properties and functionality we associate with high-tech fabrics.

Furthermore, the evolution of wearables towards smart textiles will allow us to explore the entire landscape of the body, moving beyond the wrist and head. It will also help to make the technology invisible, which will create an amazing perceptual shift. I am reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I want us to get to a place where we can assign specific features to articles of clothing, whether they are functional or aesthetic.

BoF: Who is paving the way for this?

AP: I’d say companies like MC10, which is making wearable “circuit tattoos,” and Modern Meadow, which is growing leather in a lab, as well as people like Suzanne Lee, the founder of Biocouture.

I believe not having access to distributed and decentralised energy is our biggest limitation within wearables, so anyone who can solve the mobile power problem will be a game changer. For that, I’m looking to Dan Steingart at Princeton and his work with printable fibre batteries.

I am working with a research team at Google on a textile-based project. I can’t say much about it right now, but what is significant to note is that a technology company is working on shifting materiality closer to that of the fashion world. Google is unique in that it has a deep commitment to early and diverse research and looks at [turning these into] products further off. But I think it signals what will be necessary to stay competitive.

BoF: Marc Andresseen says “software is eating the world,” pointing to the rise of software-driven companies that are reshaping everything from music (Spotify) to recruiting (LinkedIn). Will companies developing wearable tech one day “eat” the fashion industry?

AP: How about the fashion industry eating wearable tech? Let’s consider that possibility. Fashion companies have the power to reach mainstream consumers in every possible market and demographic. Everyone buys clothes. But how can fashion companies better integrate with technology? The question addresses the fundamental difference between what I consider to be gadgets (or consumer electronics) and wearables.

Once something is worn on the body, it becomes an object of fashion. The language of fashion is one of identity and expression. And fashion’s design ecosystem thrives on a diversity of options. Apple successfully markets and sells the same iPhone to a 70-year-old man and a 14-year-old girl. Both can identify with it. The iPhone is ‘winning’ the market. But there is no single garment that can do this. Wearables are currently in a difficult transitional zone between the models of production that govern consumer electronics and those that govern fashion.

Take Google Glass. It is fundamentally an amazing platform and a massive technological achievement. As a product worn on the body, however, it doesn’t offer an aesthetic to which most people can relate or want to identify with. This is where the fashion industry has a much bigger role to play — in helping wearables find the right balance as fashion objects emerging from the consumer electronics industry. We shouldn’t be striving toward one single ‘winning’ device in wearables, but a diversity of products which embody a multiplicity of viewpoints, in functionality and aesthetics.

BoF: Some say the market for wearables will reach $50 billion in the next 3 to 5 years. What will it take to fulfill this potential?

AP: The wearables market will fulfil its potential if, and only if, it embraces and fosters diversity. Until recently, technology companies and very specifically the ecosystem of Silicon Valley have led the development of wearables and what we’re seeing are products that are a reflection of the very specific perspective and priorities of that environment.

But we are starting to see a rise in products coming from different places, representing different perspectives and value systems, which is crucial for market expansion. Ringly is an early example in the smart jewellery space. It was founded by a woman, Christina Mercando, in New York. I worked with her in the very early days of the company and it is the only device I wear now on a daily basis. I immediately recognised the value of its functionality and appreciated that it solved a particularly simple but gendered issue: women miss calls and texts when their phone is in their purse and not on their body. But first and foremost, it’s a ring. It is something I would wear as a piece of fashion. The primary market was always intended to be fashionable women and Ringly acted like a fashion brand. The product also purposely offered a limited amount of information, which is appropriate for its relationship to the body. Not all wearables need to be “Swiss Army Knives of technology.” This is where I think lots of smartwatches get it wrong.

One thing that isn’t really talked about enough in this space is the importance of developing enabling technologies behind the consumer-facing brands. This is really more of the ‘Intel Inside’ model — and Intel is positioning itself to play a big role — but it also extends to the creation of new components and materials, which enable technologies to cross the hard/soft divide: flexible circuits, fibre batteries, soft connectors, conductive textiles. This is more on the business-to-business side of the market, but I hope it will ultimately allow for more development to be done inside the fashion industry.

BoF: Tell me about the work you are doing at Manufacture New York. What is your mission? What do you hope to achieve?

AP: Manufacture New York is a hybrid fashion incubator, full manufacturing facility and R&D lab for the future of science and textiles. Our incubator hosts and supports emerging fashion brands and fashion and textile technology companies; our factory offers fabrication services for the full process of garment and accessory manufacturing through the vertical integration of co-located manufacturers; and our R&D facilities, which I direct, combine advanced digital fabrication, soft circuits and wearable electronics, as well as biology and chemistry lab facilities.

Our broader mission is to reclaim and expand domestic manufacturing capabilities at costs that are economically viable for designers, manufacturers and consumers alike, but instead of simply reshoring fashion manufacturing, we are involved in “next-shoring,” where innovation in production and proximity to research is the driver which differentiates domestic production. This is about combining traditional fashion production methods with new technologies. It is also a chance to connect the designers in our incubator or who produce in our factory with cutting-edge work in the wearables and new materials space.

We have been running a pilot program in Manhattan’s Garment District for the last year, but recently moved into a huge new 160,000-square-foot facility in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Part of our plan also involves national and international expansion and we are planning on expanding to locations such as Los Angeles, London and Copenhagen.

BoF: How should established fashion brands participate in the wearable tech market? What advice do you have?

AP: The first thing is: don’t get caught up in the hype of gadgeteering. The gadgets that you see in the market today represent only a tiny sliver of what is possible. You will not be left behind if you don’t have your brand on a fitness tracking device. Put some time into thinking further ahead, researching what these new technologies could mean for your business inside of fashion.

The second thing is: embrace and foster diversity by driving your own projects. Fashion designers have so much to offer the space, a deep understanding of the body, how textiles behave, how clothing is already intuitively interactive and, perhaps more importantly, a very far-reaching creative and aesthetic drive.

Fashion, fundamentally, is about beauty, desire, identity, diversity and personal expression. These things create joy as part of the human experience and, quite frankly, sell. Technology can be another way to enable deep expressions of creativity. And fashion has a deep history with technology. Look to Hussein Chalayan, not Apple, for inspiration on the future of wearables. Look back to Bauhaus costumes and theatre. Or back to 1919 when [Italian poet, editor and futurist Filippo Tommaso] Marinetti wore a lightbulb tie which flashed for emphasis during speeches, perhaps the original wearable.

Don’t let what technology companies have done so far limit or determine the potential of this creative space. And recognise that making a really new product will not fit into the budgetary or developmental cycle of a single season. This is where partnerships can come into play, but don’t wait for technology companies to come to you.

The last thing is — and I can’t stress this one enough — get engaged and invested in the future of your own industry from the ground up: invent your own materials, develop your own processes, own your own supply chains. If anybody is going to ‘win’ in the convergence of fashion and tech, infrastructure and back-end processes will play a major role.

The interview has been edited and condensed.