The Past

How everything started:

The term ‘Wearable Electronics’ was first used in connection with Wearable Computers. Some people even go so far back in time and say the first Wearable Computer was invented around 1200 BC with the invention of the wristwatch. This may be correct to a certain extend, depending how we want to interpret the term computer. But nevertheless, this is actually a good example on how technology can evolve over time to be seen and used as part of our self, our personality and our clothing.

Some people that can live without a wristwatch, as there are people that live without clothing. But I think you will get my point here.

It is not my intension to go that far back in history, just as far as needed to have an overview what happened in this area and to help building the foundation of understanding of the future.

I offer my apologies in this place to the many pioneers in the Wearable Computer area, the ‘Wearables’, as it is called sometimes, and to the many of the great people that have devoted their life and energy to Wearable Electronics.
Apologies, because I will very generously jump over many facts, that I do not see relevant to this Blog.

Many documents and some books have been written about the technical, social and aesthetic aspects of Wearable Computing and Wearable Electronics. If you are interested into this information, I have added links and book references to some of the most interesting and comprehensive resources.

There are many different interpretations of Wearable Electronics that are used for products or in a context that has really nothing to do with Wearable Electronics. Products that are portable are being labeled with the attribute of wearable or wearable electronics just because they are small in size and can by worn (hung) around the neck.

But this does not classify them as Wearable Electronics. They are add-on to the natural outfit and I doubt that a plastic or metal box, hanging from your neck can be called neither fashionable nor wearable.

But hold on, there can be situations where, for example, stripping a small plastic box computer to your arm does justify the term Wearable Computer. That’s right, in the professional and business area; Wearable Computers are part of the daily routine for quite some time now.

In the professional area, safety, function and productivity come before fashion. An in this market segment, Wearable Electronics has it’s place but with a different meaning. Sensors placed or integrated into part of the professional clothing can safe lives and improve the efficiency of the professionals.

Wearable Electronics for the Military is another, large field for Wearable Electronic technology. Actually, most funding and research is carried out or initiated by the military sector. Yet again, the requirements and definition of Wearable Electronic is somewhat different compared to the other sectors. But as it is the case in many other areas of life, developments in the military area will come down to the civil and consumer area sooner or later in different form.

Yet another segment of Wearable Electronics is the Health sector. Hospitals and Health organization are investigating and invest huge amount of resources and funding into the development of health monitoring, hospital effectiveness and efficiency improving products using Wearable Electronic technologies. From this area, spin-offs of the products for the health sector will at the end make their appearance into the wellness and sport market for consumers.

As you might see in this overview, there are different views, needs and requirements and therefore people use different interpretations of Wearable Electronics. All of them are correct as long as it is understood in which context this definition is given.

Because Wearable Electronic is a new product category and most of us do not have a clear view on it, all those diversities in definitions are contributing to the confusion. It is much easier for us to understand something ‘new’ if we have a reference point, a known similar product that has an incremental improvement by adding or merging other, to us known functions.
For example, if a company announces a new mobile phone with camera or MP3 player, we more or less can imagine what this will be. Of course, the way the companies’ package and merge these different functions to a new product is their competitive edge and our pleasure to see it actually working.

We are zooming in now on the type of Wearable Electronics that is the focus of this Book/Blog, the Consumer oriented, fashionable and lifestyle enhancing Wearable Electronic.

But first, we have to create our own definition how we want to see and understand Wearable Electronics in the consumer market. With this definition in mind, it becomes easy to refer to existing and future products. We create our very own reference point as the common language for the exiting world of Wearable Electronic Fashion.

Our definition:

  1. Wearable Electronics, as opposed to wearable computers, are not portable miniaturized pieces of hardware but garments with embedded functionalities. These textile materials are able to transport data (electrical signals) and have the ability to) integrated electrically active components.
  2. Wearable Electronics refers to the reliable, robust implementation of electrical properties into new, innovative textiles or garments in a way that is suitable for everyday use.

The start of Wearable Electronics for consumers:

In 1995, Philips Design showed the world, through its project ‘Vision of the Future’, the first ideas of wearable electronics.

There have been several challenges for Philips Design in realizing this ambitious goal.

One was to develop applications and technologies responsive to human needs that have been identified through socio-cultural research.

As Wearable Electronic is a new field, commercially and technologically, the relevant technologies and textiles capable of supporting such applications had to be invented and developed.

Last but as important as the other points was, and still is, the formation and establishment of partnerships between Electronic and Textile industries, with clothing designer and fashion houses.
Philips Design, in collaboration with Philips Research has developed several ideas and prototypes over the next years. The concepts illustrated numerous possible applications for Wearable Electronics and some of them have been collected in the book New Nomads.

The first Wearable Electronics garment that made it into the market was the ICD+ Jacket, co-developed and designed between Philips Design and Levis. Those jackets included communication (phone) and entertainment (MP3 player) functions and their purpose in Levi’s strategy was to contribute to the image change that the fashion brand was looking for in early 2000. Produced in limited numbers in winter and spring models, the jackets were quickly sold out.
Unfortunately, this was planned by Levis as limited edition only and no other product was released into the Wearable Electronic Fashion market for some time.

Nevertheless, this Philips Design initiative has changed the clothing and fashion perspective forever.

Since this early, bold start, companies from around the world got interested. They assigned resources and granted funding to investigate into finding ways to achieve large scale, commercial success.

As it turned out, the fashion segment is one of the most challenging areas to ably und use those new technologies. Technologies that have to be invented and developed into mass producible products across very different, established manufacturing processes and businesses. More on this topic in a later chapter.

The second, commercial available, Wearable Electronic product came at the end of 2002 and was a Jacket from Burton that had textile based remote control keys in the sleeve of the Jacket. This enabled the consumer to change the volume or skip to another song without taking out the Sony MD player. The textile wiring and the keypad came from a company called: Softswitch.

Softswitch and another company, Eleksen, have been the first dedicated, commercial companies that offered components (a term from the Electronic business) based on textile electronic. The product of Eleksen is called Elektex and is essentially a sensor like the Softswitch product but they way they work (technically) is different. From consumer perspective they behave, almost, in the same way.

Up and until the end of 2002 most, if not all, activities in Wearable Electronic development have been conducted in Universities, Research Labs of different companies in the Electronic and Textile business. But not much has come to the public and Internet searches did not return many hits.

This situation changed at the end of 2002 dramatically. Using the same search terms as before, the hit rate shot up extensively and in mid 2003, it was almost impossible to keep track of them all.

We enter now the era of Wearable Electronics that is comparable with a youngster that has a lot of dreams but does not know yet what tools he or she needs to realize those dreams.

Our starting point is the emergence of Wearable Electronics for consumer products like clothing, fashion, wellness and active lifestyle.

To be continued …