New clothing technology can track your lost sweater, but should we be sharing our laundry in public?
In 1982, a group of computer science students at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, installed an internet-connected vending machine on campus. Programmed to signal when freshly loaded drinks were sufficiently chilled, today the vending machine is heralded as an early iteration of the Internet of Things.
Simply put, the IoT is the connection of everyday objects to the internet, enabling them to send and receive data. Three decades later, and a deal between labelling giant Avery Dennison — which counts Nike, Marks and Spencer and Hugo Boss among its clients — and software specialist Evrythng, who collect and manage the data generated by smart products, shows just how dramatically the IoT has matured. Having pledged to fit 10bn items of apparel with digital capabilities within the next few years, our purchases will soon come equipped with an array of online applications accessible via our phones. In its transition from cola bottles to clothes, the IoT is, literally, being woven into the fabric of our everyday lives.
Tech research company Gartner predicts there will be 20.8bn devices on the IoT by 2020; ABI Research’s estimation puts it closer to 40bn. Already, Alexa, Amazon’s voice-activated virtual assistant, can remotely perform a multitude of mundane tasks, such as dimming lights and turning up the volume of your sound system, and is being integrated into dozens of devices, from watches, to speakers and, soon, cars. Samsung’s smart fridge contains an embedded camera that alerts your phone when food is approaching its sell-by date. If the item in question is your last pint of milk, you can order a replacement via an onboard operating system.
The Silicon Valley-based tech company Nest Labs, owned by Alphabet Inc, has even managed to make thermostats seem stylish. The digitisation of our clothes is a marked step beyond the smart connection of home appliances. Consider a wardrobe. Amassed over the years, it catalogues a personality; frivolous impulse buys, holiday souvenirs, party dresses and suits hang alongside pieces that represent the most prosaic aspects of our daily routine — the shoes that walk to work every day, the bag that accompanies you everywhere.
For brands, digital access to our wardrobes offers a unique and lucrative set of possibilities. Having scanned a clothing label with a phone, customers unlock a raft of bespoke digital content. Brands can send over styling tips and recommendations, or offer loyalty points and discounts. A top can present its wearer with some trousers it might suit. A pair of running shoes can signal when they are worn out. Re-ordering replacements will be easy and immediate.
This newly minted, post-purchase arena is rich with commercial prospects but Niall Murphy, chief executive of Evrythng, stresses that it will empower customers, too. Lost your favourite sweater? You’ll be able to track it down. You’ll be able to find how to recycle items at the touch of a screen. Information pertaining to the provenance and manufacturing process of a garment will be readily available and open to scrutiny, as will its sustainability credentials.
“Brands want to be able to communicate that kind of information,” Murphy says. “It’s not just super high-end fashion. It’s practical, everyday items where someone wants to know where the item came from, or what its ethics are, or its labour practices at the point of manufacture.” The labels also could have more experiential uses.
In December, Avery Dennison and Evrythng collaborated with New York-based brand Rochambeau to produce a limited-edition collection of #borndigital jackets. Fitted with a chip hidden in the left sleeve, they granted wearers access to a range of experiences across New York, curated by Rochambeau’s designers Joshua Cooper and Laurence Chandler, recipients of the 2016 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award. One jacket acted as a coupon for a tasting menu in New York’s famed tapas restaurant Toro; others gave entry to exclusive galleries and clubs, or tickets to Rochambeau’s fashion show.
“It’s essentially offering access to the things that inspire us,” explains Cooper. “Wear a Rochambeau product and step into our world.” Burberry, an established pioneer in the fields of fashion and tech, has been experimenting with the IoT for years, weaving a proliferation of connected devices into its flagship Regent Street store. Selected clothes are fitted with digital labels that, when activated, trigger the fitting room mirrors to transition into screens, playing a range of bespoke films and catwalk footage.
Matthew Drinkwater, head of the London College of Fashion’s Innovation Agency, argues that this focus on personalisation will take us back to an older, more traditional retail experience that has all but disappeared. “It has the possibility to return shopping to what it was. Where retailers know you and what you like,” he says. “It’s what the corner shop and the tailor have been doing for years.” Today, though, it’s the smartphone not the shopkeeper acting as mediator between customers and brands, offering data-driven suggestions based on previous purchases.
Deon Stander, vice-president of Avery Dennison, agrees. “Connectivity got lost over the years. Now, we are at a point where a combination of technologies, including what we do with the Evrythng platform, is able to reignite that one-to-one relationship.”
The downside? The specificity of the data collated is becoming more valuable. “Those with access to it are getting an immense insight,” says Dr Richie Tynan, technologist at Privacy International. “We can be impacted by systems we cannot see. And this places individuals at a massive disadvantage when their data is exploited by companies, governments or malicious third parties.”
The implications are wide-reaching. “Imagine a hacked pair of shoes telling your health insurer that you don’t exercise as much as they demand for your given insurance policy, and at renewal your premium is doubled,” says Tynan. “The law doesn’t even consider this scenario. It was drafted in an era when people came to devices and could see them.”
The challenge for brands, then, is to strike a balance between providing customers with a meaningful experience and maintaining a firm, transparent grip on security. As we shift our lives further online, it’s becoming clear that the clothes behind our closet doors are bristling with capabilities that go far beyond mere style.
Read the article on Financial Times.