Programmable Clothes Are Going Commercial

Electronic clothing is the next frontier in sustainable fashion, as it removes the need to amass a large wardrobe. But will people buy it?

Clothes speak volumes about us, conveying messages about wealth, taste, and personal beliefs. So in this age of ubiquitous screens and social sharing, it’s no surprise that textiles have become another platform for electronic communication.

Yet up to now, price and material limitations have restricted these garments to couture and concept—red-carpet spectacles like Nicole Scherzinger’s Twitter dress, which spelled out in microLEDs fan tweets, scrolling the across “The X Factor” judge’s lap in real time. But two new efforts are commercializing the technology, creating consumer fashions that allow the wearer to project any electronic text or image she desires.

CuteCircuit—the London-based makers of Scherzinger’s dress—have been leading the charge. Founded in 2004 by designers Francesca Rosella and Ryan Genz, the company recently introduced InfiniTshirt, a programmable top that features a 1,024-pixel screen of full-color LEDs.

“We designed the shirt to be a true interactive experience,” says Rosella of the garment, which is fashioned from CuteCircuit’s proprietary Magic Fabric and embedded with a microphone, microcamera, accelerometer, and speakers. “The shirt also plays video at 25 frames per second, so it looks really spectacular when it is alive,” she says.

Wearers control the shirt’s visuals—pictures, words, and tweets—via Bluetooth with CuteCircuit’s Q App for iphone. The app also manages those functions for the company’s haute-couture pieces, including mini-skirts and evening purses.

InfiniTshirt grew out of a 2012 promotional campaign for Scottish whiskey company Ballantine’s. The spirits purveyor was looking to transform a T-shirt into a new canvas of expression, and hired CuteCircuit to create an interactive garment. The resulting prototype, called tshirtOS, did not go into production due to cost and fragility, says Rohan Nayee, global digital marketing manager at Ballantine’s parent company Pernod Ricard. But after further developing the technology, CuteCircuit renamed the piece and began making it itself.

InfiniTshirt starts at 850 British pounds, according to Rosella–not cheap, but still about a third the cost of CuteCircuit’s other interactive couture.

Interactive textile Infinite Canvas, developed by Switch Embassy, is cut from the same cloth. Well, at least figuratively: The plug-and-play fabric system, which displays text and images on flexible, all-white LED screens, developed out of the San Francisco-based company’s efforts to create a more resilient and less expensive tshirtOS. (Ballantine’s eventually produced 25 of these version 2.0 shirts, using them in its 2013 Stay True—Leave an Impression campaign.)

Foldable and machine-washable, just like its Ballantine’s 2.0 predecessor, Infinite Canvas uses only white microLEDs on its fabric background. Panels are available “in any shape, size, or geometry starting with an 8×8 grid,” says Alison Lewis, SwitchEmbassy’s founder and CEO. They also can be sewn together, just like any flat fabric pattern. That means multiple panels can appear on larger items such as coats and pants, as well as on home décor and signage.

The system uses the electronic thread embroidery techniques pioneered by textile innovators Foster Rohner as its base, with LEDs, conductors, microcircuits, and software incorporated in each panel. For the material, which won the Techtextil Innovation award in May, the company tested over 300 fabrics for diffusion, translucency, weave, and hand-feel. The winning option was chosen for its drape and durability. (The hardware and software could still be used with different materials and fabrics.)

As with InfiniTshirt, Infinite Canvas’ content is controlled with a custom app that can change the LEDs’ brightness, track battery levels, and connect to a server of uploadable predesigned images and animations.

Although Switch Embassy is positioning Infinite Canvas as a development solution for fashion and interior-design companies, it also plans to use it for its own products. The company has debuted one—a handbag, called Theia—and is in the midst of doing market research to finalize production and price points for others, including a T-shirt.

Lewis believes that eventually, all our clothes will be interactive. “Like Google’s Project Jacquard [Google’s plan to turn clothing into touch screens], the cost of this technology starts at a luxury price point,” she says. But given standard platforms, like those created by her company and CuteCircuit, “The cost will come down.”

Which prompts an important follow-up question: Do people really want to buy and wear tweeting, flashing clothes? Probably not everyone. (Fortunately, in all items you can turn those functions off). As CuteCircuit’s Rosella sees it, the larger point is that the technology could introduce a new form of sustainable fashion. Downloadable content removes the need to amass a large wardrobe, as you can constantly change the design and patterns on a single piece. A compelling thought—particularly if don’t want your tee to do your talking.

About the author

Julie Taraska is a New York-based writer, e-retail editrix, and (somewhat) reformed punk who has worked for everyone from Wallpaper* to Gilt Groupe. Reach her on Twitter at @julietaraska.

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