Six things your clothes will be able to do in the future

A version of this post first appeared on Fashionista.com 

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Pauline van Dongen

Spending on wearable technology is expected to reach $53 billion worldwide by 2019, according to Juniper Research. Sound a bit surprising? Rightly so. At the moment, the wearable tech on the market is seemingly designed for gadget geeks or fitness fanatics, and not much else. Even the Apple Watch leaves little to be desired in the fashion department. So where’s all the good-looking stuff we actually want to, you know, wear?

Fortunately we’ve seen the future, and we can tell you it’s not all going to be about smartwatches, pieces of jewellery that flash when our phone rings or virtual reality goggles. The launch of Ralph Lauren’s PoloTech T-shirt in August is evidence of the kind of appealing connected technology that is slowly moving into the apparel realm. This one might still be geared towards the athletic market first and foremost – it allows the wearer to capture biometric information including heart rate, breathing rate, steps taken and more – but it’s a good move forward.

And there’s lots of other work being done in science and technology that will change the way we dress further. Whether it’s about controlling devices through the cuff of a sleeve, or quickly shortening the length of our skirts for a night out, here’s some of the clothing-related technologies you can look forward to in the future.

Items that change colour

This one is a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t we want our white T-shirts to change to a darker grey if we spill something on them, or a polka dot dress to shift to stripes when we spot someone else wearing the same one? In the future, being able to change the colour of your look will be easy;  at the moment there’s lots being worked on in this realm to make it so. Most of it is similar to the Global Hypercolor t-shirts from the 80s and 90s – remember those ones that changed color when they got hot for instance? Look out for the likes of The Unseen, a London-based brand fusing science and design, which is already experimenting heavily in this space.

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The Unseen

Jeans that communicate

Walk into a tech conference, and you’ll see lots of people speaking into the Apple Watches on their wrists, a la Inspector Gadget. But interactions with the items on our bodies are about to get even weirder. Next year, Google will launch Project Jacquard with Levi’s, weaving conductive yarn into jeans to allow touch interactivity on the fabric itself. The idea is to provide simple functionalities that will free us from using our mobile phones all of the time — like being able to request an Uber, silence our phones, take a selfie or even turn a lightbulb on or off. A prototype saw the same idea embedded in the sleeve of a jacket made on Savile Row. It might sound wacky now, but more seamless interactions are the way of the future.

Clothes that charge your other devices

Garments that feature solar panels and a small portable battery that you can plug the likes of your phone into to give it a little more juice, have been out in the market for a while. Last year, Tommy Hilfiger launched a jacket designed for the great outdoors with solar strips attached to the back of it, while Dutch designer Pauline van Dongen has a great looking T-shirt that does the same job. In the future, designers will also harness kinetic energy from our bodies for a charge.

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Tommy Hilfiger

Jackets with body temperature controls

Speaking of energy, in everyday clothes, we’re often hot one minute and cold the next. Wearable tech’s future will be about being able to control your body temperature through your coat. Ever sat in one of those cars with heated seats? Imagine something like that, but far more stylish. If you’re after even more technology in your life, there’s no reason why you couldn’t then connect your body temperature information from your outerwear with your thermostat at home so your apartment is just the right temperature once you walk in, too.

A wardrobe made to measure

There’s an ongoing amount of work being done around making sure clothes really fit us through 3D body scanning and detailed algorithms. Imagine being able to customise the size of everything you buy, whether it’s from Asos or J.Crew, and not just a high-end designer name. Knowing that a dress is going to be made to perfectly fit our body shape, or the drama of purchasing jeans is going to be completely seamless, will make the click-to-buy button all the more tempting. Start-ups like Acustom Apparel, which uses the latest 3D measuring technology to digitally tailor menswear, is just one in a long list of companies exploring this space. Others like Orpiva, which launches this autumn, are also incorporating ideas such as being able to snap a photo of someone on the street in an item you like in order to seek out similar looks online. From there you can then virtually try them on too.

Styles that shift in shape

Shape-shifting styles are a bit further away in the future, but they’re not a complete pipe dream. A video released by Lacoste in 2012 set the tone (see above), showing clothes that shift colour, sleeves that lengthen and silhouettes that grow slimmer. This kind of technology is based on complicated fiber science — i.e. changing the molecular structures of textiles — but it’s something that researchers at the likes of OMsignal, the technology company behind that PoloTech shirt from Ralph Lauren, are working on. Pauline van Dongen is also exploring how 3D printing can be used to achieve such changes, adapting structural flexibilities so items can be more tightly woven at one point, and more open at another. And sportswear label Chromat just revealed a dress in collaboration with Intel during New York Fashion Week that features a carbon fibre framework that expands and collapses based on the wearer’s body temperature and stress levels.

It’s not impossible to imagine a future where a perfectly-fitting dress could change colour, sleeve and hem length depending on the occasion; maintain the right temperature in response to the environment; and be used to charge a dying phone battery or send a message to a loved one, too. In the future, we’ll be surprised just how little our clothes once did for us.