Will Talking to Our Clothes be Normal in the Future?

With clothing company Ministry of Supply launching a Kickstarter for a voice-activated, intelligently heated jacket, we have to ask, is the future of clothing voice activated? Callum Tyndall investigates

Launched on Kickstarter, and at the time of writing having attained £178,130 of funding (over three times its original goal of £51,618) with 28 days to go, Ministry of Supply’s Mercury Intelligent Heated Jacket certainly seems to resemble the future of clothing.

Voice controlled, with heating that automatically modulates to the optimal temperature and that learns from your behaviour to improve over time, the jacket is at the forefront of ‘smart clothing’.

It seems likely that this must be the future direction of clothing design, but the focus on functional improvement rather than purely aesthetic design has tended to be limited to active wear and the likes of hiking gear. But can Ministry of Supply and companies like them make future functionality fashionable?

Images courtesy of Ministry of Supply

Mercury Intelligent Heated Jacket: Pioneering the future of fashion?

The central component of the Mercury jacket’s heating system is the three carbon fibre heating elements that all heat at once, and are placed to disappear into the jacket. Weighing just 100g and with a 1mm thinness, the heaters are designed to be almost unnoticeable, while creating a microclimate for your body. By combining readings from an accelerometer, your body temperature and outside temperature, the jacket is then able to work out the perfect amount of heat to provide at the time. Moreover, as you continue to use it, the jacket will get better at dialling in that optimum heat and adapting to what works for you.

Voice control is obviously a big element of the jacket from a marketing perspective; the ability to have your jacket pre-heat before you go out being a rather unique offering. However, the jacket’s voice control seems to be largely based on the notion of preheating, reliant as it appears to be on a smart assistant like Alexa. On-the-go control, at least from what the Kickstarter seems to suggest, will largely be handled by the jacket’s app or a built-in control button. Considering that we are still fairly early into the lifecycle of smart fashion and even smart assistants however, it’s fairly forgivable that this wouldn’t be the fully integrated, near-AI companion level smart jacket of our dreams.

Voice activation was another way to engineer the jacket to make our customers’ daily lives easier

Talking to Gihan Amarasiriwardena, co-founder and chief design officer for Ministry of Supply, he explained the thinking behind putting voice control at the heart of the jacket’s design.

“While there are other heated garments out there, we wanted to make one that’s super simple to use – so we applied machine learning and voice control to do just that,” says Amarasiriwardena.

“As for voice activation, recently digital assistants like Alexa have become even more popular. Consumers are more comfortable integrating voice into their daily routines, and we wanted to create a garment that incorporated this fast-growing technology in a seamless way. Looking ahead, we know that most customers engage with Alexa in the morning, asking ‘Alexa, what’s the weather?’ while getting dressed.

"Why? Because they’re looking for insights into what to wear. The logical next step would be for Alexa to respond, ‘It’s 32 degrees outside. Would you like me to heat up your jacket?’ Voice activation was another way to engineer the jacket to make our customers’ daily lives easier.”

Amarasiriwardena further explained that while voice activation was not the only technology driving the future of clothing, Ministry of Supply are currently experimenting with the potential of 3D printing and 3D knitting in particular.

“It does serve as a simple answer for how to make customers’ lives easier. Rather than incorporating technology for the sake of it, the purpose should be to offer a “natural, simple, and intuitive way to interact with that technology,” says Amarasiriwardena.

Project Jacquard: Making tech wearable

The incorporation of technology into clothing is not limited to Ministry of Supply of course, multiple other companies have begun to incorporate technology into clothing projects in an attempt to make their products ‘smart’.

One of the bigger names is Project Jacquard, a collaboration between Google and Levi Strauss that looks to incorporate connective technology by weaving it into the very fabric of clothing. Their only current product is the Commuter Trucker Jacket, a jacket that features a snap tag on the cuff that connects to the ‘Jacquard Threads’ in the cuff itself. These threads are essentially a conductive yarn that combines thin metallic alloys with yarns typically found in clothing; in combination with the snap tag, these threads then allow for the building of touch and gesture sensitive areas on the sleeve.

In the case of the Commuter Trucker Jacket specifically, users can be informed by the snap tag of incoming information such as phone calls via light and haptic feedback (and can also have messages read out to them or send calls to voicemail), as well as using the tag to receive navigation updates or control their music.

We wanted to make a garment, not a gadget

While the Commuter Trucker Jacket is currently the only released project, Google has said it plans to add athletics, business and enterprise ranges. More interesting though is that, simply through updates to the Jacquard app, the clothing you wear becomes iterative via software.

So while the feature set might currently be fairly narrow, Google has already managed to expand the customisation options of the jacket post-launch. In essence, the jacket you buy today could, feature wise, be completely different six months down the line.

At the moment, the Commuter Trucker Jacket represents some of the early awkwardness of tech like this; while the Jacquard Threads are impressive, having to have a security tag-like device stuck to your wrist is likely to become irksome at some point and certainly doesn’t make for much of an style point.

That aside, considering it has been fairly specifically designed to target cyclists rather than just the public as a whole, it is worth noting that Jacquard’s approach may reflect a path to ‘smart’ fashion that is likely to more commonly proliferate among clothing companies. Allowing users to simply expand an OS ecosystem they’re already in, with the emphasis on phone connectivity, while it may not quite revolutionise, it could serve as a solid entry point for the public consciousness as to how technology could enhance clothing.   

As Ivan Poupyrev, engineering director and technical project lead on Projects Jacquard, has said of the project, “We wanted to make a garment, not a gadget”.

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