Smart Fabric, Not Wrist Bling, To Lead Wearable Market Growth?

Coming soon: Smart Fabric as Coach?

There’s incredible hype surrounding the wearable market and most of it is aimed at the wrist where activity monitors continue to move from crude step counter to something much more tripped out. The ultimate example is certainly the $350-ish Apple Watch slated for release in the spring if rumors are to be believed. In his article, “Wearable market set to explode,” author Dan Cook declares, “the evolution of products designed to measure heart rate, blood pressure, weight and body fat, and to track workouts, will move toward smartwatches.” But, there are other opportunities being overshadowed by the designer bling and it centers around smart fabric.

Consider the measurement opportunities for smart fabric. In the insoles of shoes, smart fabric can sense running style, pronation, gate, contact order, and fit. Covering the head in a skull cap, smart fabric can not only tell the force a player is hit but where on the head the force occurred. Inside a boxer’s gloves, smart fabric can tell how effectively the punch connected to an opponent and, inside a batter’s glove, the behavior of his grip throughout a swing. Sewn onto the arm of clothing, smart fabric can provide the same kinds of controls as buttons on a smart phone: answer call, volume control, advance a track or go back a track.

Of these applications, running is the one with the greatest market potential for smart fabrics. According to the report issued June 15, 2014 entitled “2014 State of the Sport – Part II: Running Industry Report,” published by Running USA, “Since 2004, total running/jogging participation (run/jog 6+ days/yr) has increased 70% to a record of nearly 42,000,000, according to the NSGA. Females in the 25-34 age group category lead participation totals with more than 5.6 million in 2013, and since 2012, according to NSGA, more women run than men in the USA (both genders are at record highs).” Furthermore, a typical running shoe is retired after 300 to 500 miles of use, at 5 miles a day, that’s roughly once or twice a year, more frequently than that $300 wristwatch.

One company poised to capitalize on this performance-crazed market is Berkeley, Calif.-based, Bebop Sensors. BeBop’s proprietary Monolithic Fabric Sensor Technology integrates all of the sensors, traces and electronics into a single piece of fabric, thus enabling increased sensitivity, resolution, range of deployment and robustness in a practical size. The sensors in the fabric accurately detect pressure, bend, location, rotation, angle, and torsion, to enable the creation of a 3D representation of these forces. This produces the meaningful feedback for athletes seeking to eek out the milliseconds of performance improvement they hunger for. The watch will tell you how fast your heart is beating, your temperature and oxygen level of our blood, great if your concerned about your health, less useful for getting ahead of the game.

Company founder Keith McMillen developed the Bebop fabric technology for his musical instruments company Keith McMillen instruments. The fabric performs the touch function in fabric as the touch sensors in a smart phone or tablet. The uniqueness in Bebop’s smart fabric is its ability to provide a 3D profile of the applied force. For example, the smart fabric beneath the keys of the QuNexus keyboard produces a unique MIDI CC number for every key that is struck. In addition, the fabric sensor detects a key being held after being struck and the orientation of the force of the key in 3D space, a unique sound resulting from the force and orientation of the force.

All of this capability applies equally well if the smart fabric is worn in a running shoe. The 3D force profile can be used to compute ground reaction force (GRF), the shock wave or force that occurs when a runner’s foot strikes the ground. GRF comprises a vertical, horizontal, anterior and posterior component. Researchers speculate that the part of a runner’s foot—front, rear, or middle—that contacts the ground in relation to his/her body’s centre of mass is key to performance. Having an insole sensor that pings the runner when he/she hits the sweet spot on each stride could provide a real competitive advantage—in effect, a coach providing continuous advice in real time during a race.

The fabric is still looking for the OEM that will add the hardware and software to turn the potential into a final product. As for cost, in a typical wearable application such as the athletic shoe, if Fitbit is an example, the hardware and software runs around $17.36. When included in the bill-of-material, BeBop’s insole fabric solution will be competitive the company asserts. Expect this to be flying off the shelf.

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