Welcome to the New Wave of Wearable Technology

Ralph Lauren polo tech shirt
Ralph Lauren's "Polo Tech" shirt Ralph Lauren

Smart phones, smart watches: In the super-speedy cybersphere these are already looking a bit passé. But what about a pair of smart jeans, eh? Not just sartorially smart, but techno-smart in its ability to connect with devices around you?

Of all the whizzy projects announced by Google ATAP (the firm's Advanced Technology and Projects group) at its recent I/O 2015 conference, which ranged from a new modular smartphone to an extra-secure micro-SD card, the one that has really caught the popular imagination is Project Jacquard, which aims to bring connectivity to our clothing.

The weft-and-warp structure of textiles is, oddly, not dissimilar to the structure of electronic "threads" on a touchscreen. Replace some real yarn with conductive threads, the theory goes, and you should end up with cloth that acts as a sensor and can recognize patterns of touch in the way that your mobile or tablet screen does. Then all it needs is a tiny device, no bigger than a button, to pick up these signals and transmit them to your phone, and you're away.

Ralph Laurne 'polo tech' shirt

Ivan Poupyrev, technical program lead at Google ATAP, explains that Project Jacquard is about "making the basic materials of the world around us interactive."

"We already have clothes," he adds. "Why do you need a wristband to measure your steps or heartbeat when your shoes or shirt could do it more accurately?"

ATAP projects don't always work out as planned—Google Glass, for example—but the exciting thing about Jacquard is that it really does seem to have legs. Fashion forecasters certainly think so.

"Yes indeed," says Sophie-Lucie Dewulf, a senior editor and fashion trend expert at future forecaster WGSN, "projects such as Google Jacquard and E-broidery by Forster Rohner are set for market success.

"Wash-resistant E-fabrics woven or embroidered with conductive yarns are just in the infancy of this technology, yet are starting to reshape the textile industry as designers discover and experiment with the unparalleled added value and potential of sensorial textile technology."

Conductive yarn isn't actually such a huge novelty: Some shirts are already "connected." Last year, Ralph Lauren launched a "Polo Tech" shirt, a stretchy, close-fitting "compression shirt" that measures "realtime biometric data" such as your breathing rate and heart rate, and sends the information to the wearer's iPhone, and rugby players have monitors sewn into their shirts that keep track of their heart rate during games and measure the G-force impact of collisions on the pitch.

What is very new, however, is making conductive cloth on a mass-market scale and in a way that can survive the physical rough-and-tumble of loom weaving, a process that has changed remarkably little in 200 years. (Jacquard itself is a type of fabric with the pattern built into the weave, and it was the invention of the apparatus that allowed this to happen that kicked off the boom in merchanized weaving.)

What is needed to take the concept to the high street is partnership with a large, successful clothing brand, and Google's first official partner is Levi's—hence all the talk about smart jeans.

But the great question is, what will smart clothing be able to do? Sophie DeWulf lists pressure measurement (for health), heating (for wellbeing) and illumination (for promotion or safety).

After this point, the mind starts to boggle. Could you turn on the oven by patting your stomach, or turn up the central heating by rubbing both arms vigorously?

And if swiping the connective patch on the sleeve of your jacket will call your loved one or your boss, it's hard to resist daydreaming of the comic potential should it go wrong. Or if you lend the jacket to someone else. Or if your teenage son programmes the nearest device to yell, "Ow!" every time you sit down. Can you imagine what Jacques Tati would have made of a shirt that made phone calls?

Levi's has yet to confirm what products it will actually be making as part of Project Jacquard, though the first should be appearing next year. Until then, we can let our imaginations run riot about the clothes of the future.