Digital clothes: What to wear on the Internet of Things

digital-clothes-big-data-internet-of-thingsWhen it comes to how much water we should drink every day, Chinese medicine teaches that we should drink when we’re thirsty. None of this eight-glasses-of-water-a-day business — a misunderstanding of a 1940s US Food and Nutrition Board recommendation that’s been widely exposed (see How much water do we need?). For those who’ve always believed in drinking when thirsty, there’s no longer a need to be aware of our bodily sensations. We can simply wear digitized clothes that will notify us when we need to drink.

Listen to your shirt. Smart clothing could warn its wearers when they need a drink. Xsensio, based in Switzerland, is developing textiles that look for signs of dehydration by measuring body temperature, sweat and skin conductance. Sensors also take air temperature and humidity into account. As a person becomes weary and thirsty, the shirt will send alerts reminding them to drink – useful for sporty types.

This information comes from New Scientist. A letter to the editor in a subsequent issue observes:

We are told “as the person becomes thirsty the shirt will send alerts reminding them to drink”. Isn’t that what the sensation of thirst does? Talk about pointless, redundant and wasteful technology. For their next trick, how about a hat that reminds you to breathe?

Well, interesting you should mention breathing.

Every breath you take

Last September there was an exhibition in New York of wearable technology (also known as “power smart fashions”). Here’s the list of exhibitors. The descriptions are interesting. The company called Wearable Technology, for example, describes itself as believing “people are not ready to become computers, but they are growing more interested in being connected all the time – whether they’re connecting with information, people or retrieving personal data. Our clothes are an untapped resource that, together with technology, can help people stay more connected and use their fashion in a more practical way.”

A perfect example of this is a belt you can wear that allows your loved one to watch you breathe while you’re apart.

Every breath you take, I’ll be watching you. A high-tech photo frame billows its surface in time with the breaths of the person pictured, picking up their breathing pattern from a sensor-studded belt they wear. The gadget – developed by Jina Kim and colleagues at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Daejeon, South Korea – aims to help couples feel closer when they’re apart. It was presented last week at a conference at Stanford University in California, along with positive feedback from eight couples who tried it.

What exactly was the subject matter of this conference, I wondered. Digitally enhanced clothing? Turns out it was the ninth international conference on Tangible, Embedded and Embodied Interaction. Here’s a list of the papers presented (no abstracts, unfortunately).

The summary of last year’s conference notes how rapidly things have changed since the first conference in 2007. Not only do we now have more materials and tools for creating interactive environments, but, more importantly, “our culture has changed its perspective, where people no longer consider it unusual for computation to be embedded in our environment, surroundings, and everyday objects.” Objects such as our clothes.

Sue Halpern recently wrote an excellent piece for the New York Review of Books that includes a review of Jeremy Rifkin’s The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism and David Rose’s Enchanted Objects: Design, Human Desire, and the Internet of Things. Among Rose’s enchanted objects is “a jacket that gives you a hug every time someone likes your Facebook post.” When we talk about digital clothing, we’re talking about the Internet of Things.

Surveillance and the Internet of Things

The title of Halpern’s article is “The Creepy New Wave of the Internet.” What’s creepy about the Internet of Things is the opportunity it provides for surveillance — and not just by Google Glass. At the risk of making this post unconscionably long, let me quote the following passage: (emphasis added)

Recent revelations from the journalist Glenn Greenwald put the number of Americans under government surveillance at a colossal 1.2 million people. Once the Internet of Things is in place, that number might easily expand to include everyone else, because a system that can remind you to stop at the market for dessert is a system that knows who you are and where you are and what you’ve been doing and with whom you’ve been doing it. And this is information we give out freely, or unwittingly, and largely without question or complaint, trading it for convenience, or what passes for convenience.

In other words, as human behavior is tracked and merchandized on a massive scale, the Internet of Things creates the perfect conditions to bolster and expand the surveillance state. In the world of the Internet of Things, your car, your heating system, your refrigerator, your fitness apps, your credit card, your television set, your window shades, your scale, your medications, your camera, your heart rate monitor, your electric toothbrush, and your washing machine—to say nothing of your phone—generate a continuous stream of data that resides largely out of reach of the individual but not of those willing to pay for it or in other ways commandeer it.

Remember that next time you don your sensor-studded belt. Or clothing with a built-in GPS transponder.

Tracking your pregnancy

Another example of digital clothing: maternity outfits that monitor your temperature, heart rate, blood pressure and respiration. Conductive silver fibers are woven “discreetly” into the cloth and positioned at the level of the empire waist. A small device worn on a belt transmits data to a Smartphone app.

Such fashions might be especially useful during high-risk pregnancies. But they could also appeal, as reported in New Scientist, to women who “enjoy tracking devices like the Fitbit.” Such women could “get a lot out of it.” And we can barely begin to imagine how digitally enhanced the children of such enthusiasts will be. (Actually, I can appreciate that there may be times when GPS clothing for small children would be a good idea.)

Saving the environment

Here’s one last example that also involves metalicized fabric: self-heating clothes. This isn’t exactly digital clothing, since it doesn’t communicate anything on the Internet of Things. The idea is to embed silver nanowires into textiles, a process accomplished simply by dipping cloth into nanowire “ink.”

Imagine yourself completely enclosed in metal (with allowances for breathing, of course). Your body heat would be reflected back by the metal, keeping you cozy and warm. That’s the idea behind nanowire embedded clothing. It reflects your heat back, but it’s porous enough to allow moisture (your perspiration) to escape. Since the cloth conducts electricity, you could also run a current through the wires for additional heat. For this, you would need to connect your clothes to a source of electricity.

A major selling point is that it takes much less energy to heat discrete individuals than it does to heat a whole room. Good for the environment. Good for your pocketbook. Does this sound appealing to you? Connecting yourself to an electrical outlet? As another article points out, “the material will require safety testing before it can be approved for use.” Right.

Related posts:
How much water do we need?
Big Data, privacy, and civil disobedience
The end of privacy
Technology and New Challenges for Privacy: Journal of Social Philosophy Special Issue
What the Internet does to the mind and self

Image source: EMC Big Data Blog


Your shirt knows when you’re thirsty, One per cent, New Scientist, November 29, 2014, p 23

Ideas running dry?, Letters, New Scientist, December 13, 2014, p 31

A picture can be a vital sign of one’s love, One per cent, New Scientist, January 24, 2015 p 23

Sue Halpern, The Creepy New Wave of the Internet, The New York Review of Books, November 20, 2014, pp 22 – 24

Jeremy Rifkin, The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things

David Rose, Enchanted Objects: Design, Human Desire, and the Internet of Things

Aviva Rutkin, Smart clothes double as pregnancy health, New Scientist, January 24, 2015, p 22-23

Keep snuggly warm with self-heating nanowire clothes, New Scientist, January 3, 2015, p 15

Robert Ferris, ‘Nanowire’ clothing could cut your heating bills, CNBC, January 12, 2015


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