Kilara Le, a WhichPLM Reporter, frequent contributor, and intelligent member of our team, begins a discussion here on the Internet of Things. This hyped term is often met with confusion an tentative intrigue, and we wanted to open up the discussion for what it really means for our industry. Our most loyal of readers will be familiar with Kilara’s smart and questioning style.
The buzz about IoT, or the Internet of Things, is just about everywhere; products that fall under this category are popping up across all areas of our daily lives. So much so, that we may not even be aware of it, or are, by now, so used to these products that their true capabilities and impact don’t register in our already overloaded brains. IoT falls under a broad definition: objects with sensors and electrical parts, often driven by software but certainly signaling to other, ‘like-minded’ objects.
From the DIY or hardware store to the gym and city streets, objects communicate to each other, react to remote commands and aggregate data surrounding these interactions. Its not sci-fi, its now-fi, and our clothing and accessories will become even more a part of this network. So we, as an industry of fashion and textile professionals, should be talking about this and asking ourselves and our network (of people) questions about what it could, should and shouldn’t be. We, at WhichPLM, wanted to encourage our readers to start this conversation and give you some things to ponder as you unwrap and activate your Apple watches, drones, and Nest thermostats over the holidays.
In a way, we have arrived; you can use your smartphone to monitor your home via a camera link and remotely lock the door right after turning down the thermostat and closing the garage door that you forgot was open in your rush to get out of the house that morning. Luckily, your alarm on your phone started your coffee maker and your 3D printed breakfast bar was finished in time for you to grab it and go. But much like climbing a mountain, just when you think you are about to arrive at the top, you discover that a wretched smaller peak was blocking your view of the true peak and you, in fact, have many more steps to take. Even in charted territory, climates, resources and pathways change and it will be the same in these electronic ‘eco-systems’ that are now being created.
So, where do Fashion and Product Development come in?
Currently, the majority of clothing and accessory “wearables” (as in wearable technology) are closer to hardline accessories (watches and jewelry) or contain small electronic parts that wouldn’t be too out of place in a talking plush toy or in heating the seats in your car. Many individuals, research teams and R&D geniuses are working on smaller, flexible components that are more yarn and fiber based or smart finishes that transform existing textile structures.
So herein lies a question. What role should clothing and textiles play in the IoT? Should they merely transmit data such as heart rate and blood pressure over a wireless connection to a smartphone or other “reader” device? Or should they be the reader and display as well? Research is all well and good, but without vision from the industry to commercialize and improve on advancements, things with great potential will likely go nowhere. What do you envision? We encourage you to set up meetings within your organization to discuss this in an open-ended way.
Supply chain changes?
Global supply chains are already complex which may, ultimately, play in favor of the fashion industry. We are accustomed to sourcing fiber from one country, converting it to yarn in another, then fabric and coloration in yet another, while simultaneously procuring color matched trim items from 4 more global suppliers. All to have these come together in a cut and sew factory, be assembled, exit on a specific date, be shipped to a distribution center and arrive in store to coordinate with other items of the same color or style as per our floor set plan.
And that’s the simple version of events.
We are used to testing for strength, abrasion resistance, and restricted substance list chemicals, but adding in components or materials that read and transmit data electronically is a game changer. Who is defining new testing standards and acceptable human interactions? What other bodies, such as the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) in the U.S., will need to be involved? What are the impacts of the vision of a fashion-enabled IoT on the already complex supply chain? Sourcing execs, we encourage you to start this discussion. Maybe taking your team out for a beer will help to get the ball rolling on a high level IoT conversation, and will help to alleviate the headache we are already feeling on your behalf.
What about protocol?
One of the first technologies to enable the idea of IoT, decades ago, was RFID, which has multiple established protocols (standards by which RFID tags at different frequencies and RFID readers ‘talk’ to one another). Considering the complexity of this very successful technology and that most RFID is passive – in that it just transmits one way when close to a reader – what are the implications on complexity when you have two items communicating back and forth, and what happens when there are 50 talking amongst themselves? Wireless and Bluetooth protocols are established but what about if textiles become the conduit? Who will discuss, solidify and certify these? Will it be, as in the case of RFID, ISO and GS1, or another body? As the fashion industry still seems to have issues converting CAD pattern files from one software provider to the system of another, despite “standard file types”, discussing protocols with regards to IoT may require a mind set change and the altruistic cooperation of competitors for the greater good. Or perhaps we’ll just leave it up to the computer or electronics industry to accomplish what they’ve already done for multiple technologies.
Should the fashion and textile industry be a part of this conversation? Should we initiate it? What do you think?
And what about security?
Finally, how do we keep our data, and that of our company and clients, secure? What is the line between usability, visibility and intrusion of privacy? We can use IoT data internally to log who tries on what in a dressing room or which displays our best shoppers gravitate towards in our stores, but we probably don’t want our competition to know this information, or perhaps even the customers themselves. But do they have a right to know they are being watched in this way? What about health data? How concerned are consumers that someone could intercept their blood pressure data or know that they typically only take 5,000 steps a day versus their goal of 10,000? Or that they are monitoring another aspect of their health that might lead us and others to draw conclusions about them?
As pioneers on the frontier of the wearable IoT we need to be asking ourselves, our clients, and our partners these questions. Just as IOT increases interaction and visibility of information, we need to be transparent in our motivations and limitations in participating in it.
So where does this leave us?
Going back to our mountain climbing comparison, it’s highly probable that when we finally reach the top, we’ll see someone like Elon Musk zooming about in some very stylish rocket boots with a built in holographic projector having a live meeting, and realize just how far we can take these things if we can just decide on some common ground.
Just like climbing, we need to take things one-step at a time and observe the surroundings. The future of IoT and the possibilities are exciting, but we all need to be talking about it in order to, in effect, be the Things we want to see.