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Are 'Smart' Clothes the Wearables of the Future?

Smart glasses, smartwatches ... smart pants?

Vjeran Pavic

“Here, put these on,” marketing manager Jake Waxenberg told me shortly after I arrived at the offices of Athos, a Redwood City-based wearable-tech company.

He handed me a pair of black, capri-style women’s athletic pants. These were a prototype version of the product that Athos has been working on for over four years: “Smart” workout clothes. They were heavier than the black stretch pants I already had on, due to the many sensors embedded in the Athos fabric.

“Just make sure the sensors are touching your skin here,” he said, pointing to his back hip area. “They really have to be touching the skin. Sometimes we tell people … well …”

I realized he was suggesting that I remove my undergarments. Getting the pants on was a workout in itself; they’re terribly constrictive, especially around the top. I felt like I was yanking on an already-wet wetsuit, or trying to squeeze into too-small skinny jeans.

A few minutes later I emerged from the ladies room, wearing the Athos pants, going commando. Then I worked out while Waxenberg, a fast-talking former soccer pro, held an iPhone up in front of my face. Just feet away, beyond the glass walls of the company’s small in-house gym, hardware engineers and textile experts were toiling away on what they hoped would be the next big thing in wearables.

My workout with Athos gear was just one of the few instances over the past week where I’ve worn “smart” clothing that sends information, wirelessly, to an iPhone app. While much of the tech media, myself included, have been feverishly reporting on wristbands and smartwatches over the past few years (Apple Watch!), some companies in this space have been more focused on getting sensors into the items we already put on every day.

It’s an intriguing concept. Rather than remembering to charge your Fitbit, one that you might ditch after a few months, or strap a heart-rate monitor across your chest, you could just pull on your Athos pants, your OmSignal compression shirt or your Sensoria socks, and metrics like your heart rate or your foot impact would be immediately measured.

Research firm Gartner predicts that this category of wearable tech will grow from 0.1 million shipments last year to 26 million units in 2016. And professional athletes are already taking advantage of these types of garments.

But is this a reality for average consumers? “Wearable clothes” are an exciting proposition. Based on my research, I’d say it’s too early to go all in and spend hundreds of dollars (which is what these things cost) on some of this gear. In addition to being expensive, some of the clothing might not fit or feel right; it’s not just the tech that these companies are trying to perfect, but also the textiles.

Then there’s the whole question of how do I wash this stuff?

 The Athos “smart” pants I tried.
The Athos “smart” pants I tried.
Vjeran Pavic

At this point, Athos clothes are only washable by hand, and you have to take some of the tech out first. The workout clothes have two different tech components: The sensors and the “Core.” In the pants, there are tiny electromyography, or EMG, sensors and heart-rate sensors, while the long-sleeve compression shirt has those plus respiratory sensors.

The Core is a plastic nugget that snaps into the side of the pants or shirt (or both, if you’re fully tricked-out in Athos gear). This little device contains a Bluetooth chip, an accelerometer and a gyroscope, the same stuff found in activity-tracking wristbands, though Athos is quick to point out that their gear goes well beyond basic step-counting.

The value of Athos, which was founded by two electrical engineers who met at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, lies in its ability to measure your muscle effort. This is thanks to the micro-EMG sensors, which are normally found in multi-thousand-dollar equipment. The information is shared wirelessly and displayed like a heat map — blue means you’re not working your muscles very hard, red means you are — across a digital representation of your body in an iPhone app.

Vjeran Pavic

There is, of course, the practical issue of not being able to actually look at your smartphone while you’re doing squats and lunges and many other exercises, which is why Waxenberg held the phone up in front of my face while I exercised. But the app also has a playback feature, so you can complete an exercise and then go back and see how your muscles performed. Currently, the Athos app is only available on iOS.

After doing a series of jumps, squats, hamstring curls, leg presses and even some cycling while wearing the Athos pants, it was clear to me that I was favoring the left side of my body. This wasn’t altogether surprising, since I had right-knee surgery years ago, and still tend to go easier on it. But the Athos app also told me that I wasn’t really close to hitting my maximum muscle effort, even when I thought I was pushing myself.

The price of Athos jacked my heart rate up a bit more: The plastic Core alone costs $199, while each piece of apparel costs $99. So a full Athos set — the Core, a pair of pants and a shirt — costs around $400. The product starts shipping in a few months.

Is that expensive? Yes and no. This is the part where I admit to you, Re/code reader, that I own a couple items of Lululemon athletic gear that are nearly as expensive. I’ve splurged on sport apparel. And of all the “smart” clothing I’ve tried recently, I think Athos is the best.

But there’s no doubt that it’s next-level stuff. People who are buying a Fitbit to track their their steps, or are just introducing exercise into their daily lives, do not need to spend a few hundred dollars on Athos. At least not yet.

Another company I worked out with, Montreal-based OmSignal, is taking a similar approach with its biometric clothing, although it’s more focused on breathing and heart-rate measurements than it is on muscle effort. OmSignal sells super-tight compression shirts — long-sleeved, short-sleeved and sleeveless — that are meant to promote blood circulation and muscle recovery. A slightly thicker band of material around the top of the ribcage contains the heart-rate and breathing sensors.

 OmSignal shirts capture and wirelessly send your breathing and heart rate data, using this little black box on the side of the shirt.
OmSignal shirts capture and wirelessly send your breathing and heart rate data, using this little black box on the side of the shirt.
Lauren Goode

OmSignal’s shirts are machine-washable, but again, you have to remember to remove one piece of tech before you toss them in.

One of the benefits of OmSignal, product manager Dominik Pogorzelski told me when I met him at the company’s public relations office in San Francisco, is that the shirts capture your heart rate and breathing continuously, not just during workouts. So someone could wear OmSignal as a kind of undershirt throughout the day, or to bed at night.

Assuming that it’s comfortable. Like Athos, all of this data is captured by a plastic device that snaps into the side of the shirt. I could see how this might get in the way of things, especially if you’re running, but Pogorzelski assured me it wasn’t uncomfortable, pumping his arms to show me how his arm just lightly brushed across the plastic piece. (I realized, in an awkward role reversal, that I kept staring at his chest as he was explaining the shirt to me.)

Unfortunately, I couldn’t test this for myself. OmSignal only sells apparel for men, at least for now. The Little Black Box is $140; the men’s shirts cost between $100 and $130 each. Pogorzelski and I worked out together so I could see how the OmSignal iPhone app displayed his heart rate and his “push score,” but I was wearing my regular old dumb clothes.

Why no OmSignal for the ladies yet? He said that women’s physiques make it slightly more complicated to make a one-size-fits-all kind of shirt, and still get accurate readings from around the chest.

Lauren Goode

I also tried out a pair of “smart” socks this week, from Seattle-based Sensoria. In addition to socks, Sensoria sells a sports bra made with textile electrodes, but after trying on two different sizes of the $79 sports bra and finding them both ill-fitting, I focused solely on the socks. For $199, you get two pairs of socks and electronic accessory that goes with them.

The socks are, in theory, a runner’s dream. Three textile sensors on the bottom of each sock measure things like weight distribution and foot strike. This information is shown in real time in the Sensoria iPhone app, so you can adjust as you’re running.

Like the Athos app, Sensoria shows you a kind of heat map, with red points showing where you’re applying the most pressure to your feet. There are also audio alerts in the app, albeit robotic-sounding ones, so even when you’re not looking at your phone, you’ll know when your foot-strike patterns are all wrong. You are not landing on the ball of your foot, the robot voice says sharply. Adjust or take a break. Aye aye, coach.

But the socks are tall-ish and thick, less like running socks, more like high-quality hiking socks. The bigger design blunder is the removable Bluetooth anklet that’s required for the smart socks to gather and share this data to iPhone. Re/code’s Ina Fried told me she has seen enough “Law & Order” episodes to know when something looks like a house-arrest anklet.

The first time I went running with the socks, the magnetized anklet fell off. The Sensoria app started a repeated cluck cluck cluck noise, a metronome letting me know that my steps were out of sync; it took me a couple minutes to figure out the anklet was no longer attached to my right sock. Fortunately, I was on a treadmill, so the anklet was nearby. Afterward, I left the darn thing in a cupholder at the gym.

The next time I went running, I folded the top of the Sensoria sock over the anklet, as suggested by the company. While it looked a little goofy, it did the trick of holding it in place. But this time the app proved problematic. The robot coach told me my pace was 14 minutes per mile, while the text within the app indicated I ran much faster. Every so often, the app would appear to lose signal from the anklet, telling me that the device was no longer active.

Lauren Goode

The trend here is clear: While some of the health-tracking tech is embedded in the clothing itself, these products still require some type of external device to capture and transmit the data. And that’s where things can get technically complicated, in terms of attachments, battery charging and, yup, washing.

These are also products aimed squarely at athletes. The potential applications for “smart” clothing go well beyond this, some say. (Underpants that tell you what day of the week it is? Just a guess.)

“Maybe it’s not about quantifying your run,” says Mike Bell, who runs the new-device group at Intel. “In some cases, the smart shirt could take the place of the badge for employees, or maybe if you work somewhere where a uniform is required. The shirt becomes an authentication method.”

(Last year at Re/code’s annual Code Conference, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich announced he was wearing an Intel-powered smart shirt by saying, “I’m wearing a wearable shirt.” “Aren’t all shirts wearable?” Re/code’s Walt Mossberg replied.)

Another application, Intel’s Bell says, could be remote medical care: Someone who lives hours away from the nearest doctor could slip on a connected shirt and relay some of his or her health data that way. The “smart” shirt becomes a medical diagnostic tool.

In other words, there are some serious smarty pants working on smart shirts and other types of connected clothing. They just aren’t all run-out-and-buy ready — yet.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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