Smart, adaptable clothes will soon be coming to a store near you

From regulating body temperature and monitoring health to enhancing performance and providing adaptive styling, smart clothing offers a wide range of benefits that could forever change the way we dress and interact with our environment.
  • Adobe’s new ‘digital dress’ can change patterns at the click of a button
  • MIT’s shape-shifting dress adapts to your body
  • This solar-powered material can heat or cool your body on request

As technology continues to advance, it is finding its way into every corner of our lives—even our wardrobes. While clothes have traditionally been passive items we wear, the emergence of smart clothing is set to change that. These technologically enhanced garments are poised to become active participants in our daily lives, offering a range of features and benefits. Recent market research reveals that the global smart clothing and fabrics industry is experiencing significant growth. Zion Market Research predicts that the market will reach a value of $31.26 billion by 2032, a substantial increase from its 2023 valuation of $3.76 billion. This growth indicates a rising interest in, and adoption of, smart clothing technologies.

So, what exactly is smart clothing, and what can it do? Smart garments incorporate various sensors, electronics, and advanced materials to provide enhanced functionality. This can include features like fitness tracking, health monitoring, temperature regulation, and even adaptive styling. By integrating these technologies into our clothes, we can gain valuable insights into our wellbeing, improve our performance, and experience greater comfort throughout the day. In the following sections, we’ll take a closer look at the world of smart clothing, exploring the technologies behind these innovative garments, the various applications they can serve, and the potential impact they could have on our lives.

“Unlike traditional clothing, which is static, Primrose allows me to refresh my look in a moment”.

Adobe researcher Christine Dierk

Adobe’s new ‘digital dress’ can change patterns at the click of a button

How many times have you found yourself in a situation where you’re getting ready for a big event, standing in front of your closet, agonising over what to wear? You want something that will make a statement and help set you apart from the crowd. But what if we told you that you could have a dress that could change its look on a whim; transforming from a sleek, black cocktail gown to a shimmering, iridescent masterpiece with the simple press of a button? Sounds impossible, right? Well, this is precisely what the groundbreaking technology developed by the software company Adobe promises to bring.

Developed within the scope of Adobe’s Project Primrose, the ‘digital dress’ was unveiled for the first time during a recent MAX conference. At first glance, the dress appears to be a typical strapless cocktail gown — stylish, sophisticated, and ideal for an evening out. However, something extraordinary happens when the dress is activated. The sequins the dress is made of come to life, creating captivating patterns that dance across the fabric. “Unlike traditional clothing, which is static, Primrose allows me to refresh my look in a moment”, says Adobe researcher and dress designer Christine Dierk.

What’s the secret behind this enchanting garment? Each sequin on the dress is actually a miniature, programmable screen made using liquid crystals similar to those found in state-of-the-art smart lighting. Given the monicker ‘reflective light-diffuser modules’ by Adobe’s in-house team, these micro-screens can instantly change colour and pattern with a simple press of a button. The craziest part of all is that the dress doesn’t just change its appearance; it also moves with you. As you walk, turn, or dance, the patterns on the dress shift and sway, creating a mesmerising display that’s sure to turn heads. It’s like wearing a living piece of art that continuously evolves, adapting to your every movement. While the dress is undoubtedly a captivating feat, it’s just one part of Adobe’s larger vision for the future of design. According to the company, the material can be cut into almost any shape, allowing it to be integrated not just into clothing but also into furniture and other types of surfaces.

“How exciting would it be to purchase one garment and reinvent it to change and evolve as you change or as the seasons or styles change?”

Sasha McKinlay, a textile designer and researcher at the Self-Assembly Lab

MIT’s shape-shifting dress adapts to your body

For as long as anyone can remember, the wealthy and fashion-forward have turned to bespoke tailoring to achieve the perfect fit. There’s just something about a garment that’s been crafted specifically for your body, with every curve and contour taken into account, that makes you feel like a million dollars. Unfortunately, custom clothing has always come with a hefty price tag, putting it out of reach for most of us mere mortals — until now, that is. Sasha McKinlay, a graduate of the MIT Department of Architecture and a textile designer and researcher at the Self-Assembly Lab, recently joined forces with the Ministry of Supply, a fashion company known for its high-tech apparel, to create the 4D Knit Dress, a garment that’s poised to change the way we think about personalised fashion forever.

What is it that makes this dress so special? For starters, it’s made using a combination of heat-activated yarns, computerised knitting, and robotic activation, all working together to create a fit that’s sculpted to your unique shape. The culmination of years of work on dynamic textiles at the Self-Assembly Lab, these special yarns can change their shape, insulation, or breathability when exposed to heat. Let’s say you’ve been rocking your 4D Knit Dress for a few months, and you’re ready for a change. No problem! Just apply a little heat to the right places and watch as your dress tightens, tailors, and transforms before your very eyes from a sleek, pin-tucked number to an empire-waisted frock. It’s like having a closet full of custom-made dresses all rolled into one.

Of course, looking good is only half the battle. The other half is feeling good about your fashion choices, and that’s where the 4D Knit Dress really shines. Unlike your typical ‘cut-and-sew’ garment, which leaves a trail of fabric scraps in its wake, this dress is made from a single, seamless piece of material. That means virtually zero waste, which is a pretty big deal in an industry that’s notorious for its environmental impact. McKinlay hopes that this technology will help reduce the amount of unsold inventory that retailers are left with at the end of each season. “The dress could be tailored in order to adapt to these changes in styles and tastes”, she explains. “It may also be able to absorb some of the size variations that retailers need to stock. Instead of extra-small, small, medium, large, and extra-large sizes, retailers may be able to have one dress for the smaller sizes and one for the larger sizes. Of course, these are the same sustainability points that would benefit the consumer”.

As consumers become increasingly aware of the environmental impact of their clothing choices, the 4D Knit Dress offers a compelling alternative to the disposable nature of fast fashion. By investing in a garment that can be customised and adapted over time, wearers can reduce their overall consumption and contribute to a more sustainable fashion industry. “Trends change, bodies change”, says Gihan Amarasiriwardena of the Ministry of Supply. “This dress changes with them”. McKinlay hopes that this research project will encourage people to reevaluate their relationship with clothing. “Right now, when people purchase a piece of clothing, it has only one ‘look’, she says. “But how exciting would it be to purchase one garment and reinvent it to change and evolve as you change or as the seasons or styles change? I’m hoping that’s the takeaway that people will have”.

This solar-powered material can heat or cool your body on request

From the scorching heat of the Sahara to the frigid winds of the Himalayas, humans have always been at the mercy of extreme temperatures. As incredible as the human body is, it simply isn’t built to withstand the full range of climates our planet has to offer. We function best within a narrow ‘thermal comfort zone’—a sweet spot between 22 and 28 degrees Celsius where our biological processes can happily tick over. Step outside that zone, and things start to get uncomfortable fast.

For centuries, we’ve relied on clothing to help us bridge the gap between our bodies’ limitations and the harsh realities of the outside world. From self-heating vests and Gore-Tex layers to suits with built-in ice packs, we’ve gotten pretty good at dressing for the occasion. But even with all our technological advances, there’s always been a catch. Most of these high-tech garments can either warm us up or cool us down, but not both. And if they do somehow manage to pull off that trick, they usually require a clunky battery pack or an external power source.

What if there was a way to create clothing that could adapt to changing temperatures on the fly without any extra baggage? That’s the question a team of scientists from Nankai University set out to answer—and boy, did they deliver. The team developed an innovative, flexible material that harnesses the power of the sun to store and transfer heat. During the day, when temperatures are at their highest, the patch pulls heat away from the skin and stores it for later. Then, when the sun goes down and things start to cool off, it releases that stored energy to keep the wearer warm. The best part? It’s all powered by solar energy, so there’s no need for a bulky battery pack. One of the most impressive characteristics of this new material is its speed, capable of switching between cooling and heating modes at the drop of a hat. In tests, the team found that the patch could cool the skin by over nine per cent in just a matter of seconds. When exposed to a wide range of temperatures — from the bone-chilling cold to the searing heat — it kept the wearer comfortable and content.

Closing thoughts

As we’ve seen, smart clothing is no longer a futuristic concept but a growing reality. With the market poised for significant growth in the coming years, it’s clear that more and more people are recognising the potential of these innovative garments. From regulating body temperature and monitoring health to enhancing performance and providing adaptive styling, smart clothing offers a wide range of benefits that could forever change the way we dress and interact with our environment.

The examples we’ve explored showcase the incredible advancements being made in this field by various institutions and companies around the world. These groundbreaking technologies not only promise to enhance our comfort and convenience but also have the potential to contribute to a more sustainable fashion industry by reducing waste and encouraging a more mindful approach to consumption.

As research and development continue, we can expect to see even more impressive applications of smart clothing technology. Perhaps one day, our wardrobes will consist entirely of garments that seamlessly adapt to our needs, preferences, and environments. The possibilities are endless, and the future of fashion looks brighter—not to mention smarter—than ever before. As we embrace these advancements, we may find ourselves not only looking better but also feeling better, knowing that our clothes are working with us to improve our lives in countless ways.

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