This could be the future of smart clothing in this partnership between New Zealand’s tech and Japan’s market dominance
When we think of “wearables” we usually imagine smart gadgets, such as the FitBit, Apple Watch, or even the ill-fated Google Glass. The traditional approach of imbuing accessories such as watches, eyewear or the like with sensors and a CPU might very well be the way of the future, but wouldn’t it be cooler if a wearable could tell you more than just your heart rate and distance covered? As a workout fanatic dogged by injuries, I’m just as interested (if not more) in proper body alignment, posture, and the overall quality of my movement, getting information like how fast is my heart pumping. The ability of a single gadget attached to my wrist to provide that feedback is virtually nil since several kinds of data from numerous different limbs, joints, and muscles need to be accurately collected without hindering the movement that is supposed to be measured.
An alternative approach would be to integrate flexible sensors directly into clothing or sports apparel, allowing them to move with the body. That is precisely what StretchSense, a company from New Zealand, has done. Founded in 2012 as an offshoot of the Biometics Lab at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute, they have developed a range of soft sensors that measure pressure, stretch, bend, and shear, and can be interwoven with most kinds of fabric. They have also recently received Series A funding from StartToday, owner of Japan’s largest online retailer ZOZOTOWN. Although StretchSense provides sensors to more than 200 R&D partners in over 28 countries worldwide, this partnership could provide the right circumstances for integrating the Kiwi-developed sensors into retail apparel and making it available to a wider audience.
Talking to Geektime about the announcement, CEO Ben O’Brien said, “Today the trend is for many fashion and tech-oriented companies to join forces to make wearables that work really well and look really good.”
Its partnership with StartToday would put the company in an excellent position to tap into Japan’s $100 billion plus e-commerce retail market. Until now, its most mainstream retail application has been the integration of its sensors in Heddoko’s 3D motion-sensing sports garment technology, a niche company targeting professional athletes and coaches. With a retail price of $499, that is well beyond what the average fitness customer is prepared to spend. Hopefully, this new partnership will produce more affordable solutions that come with a dedicated application, like Heddoko, or will make the data available for third-party developers to access and integrate into already existing fitness trackers and apps.
Aside from taking an alternative approach to the whole concept of wearables, StretchSense also promises to provide a solution to one of the most dogged problems with wearables: power supply. One of the main challenges when it comes to wearables is the fact that there is no reliable alternative to batteries, which cannot be too large since wearable gadgets are small by necessity, and the smaller the battery the more limited the functionality is. However, wearables powered by body energy – be it kinetic or thermal – would be the ideal solution, the Holy Grail if you will, enabling the making of “disappearables”, devices that are integrated into the clothing we wear and require neither charging nor replacing.
StretchSense has one solution called the StretchSense Energy Harvesting Kit, and it turns the power dissipated while walking or running into electricity by using a compression mode soft generator that is placed underfoot and generates 1mW of power when compressed at a rate of 0.5 – 1.5 Hz. An obvious problem with this solution is that it requires regular compression unless combined with an external battery, something which not all activities involve.
StretchSense is developing a power generation solution involving stretch mode generators, but it is an open question when either of these two solutions will be affordable enough for mass-market use. Energy harvesting solutions for wearable devices are still something that only exists in labs and R&D centers, but hopefully, StretchSense will be able to put the StartToday cash injection to good use and make those smart, charge-less and affordable disappearables us exercise junkies dream about a reality.