Supercritical CO2 Colors Textile Production Greener
By Ernest Shiwanov
Color is something most people tend not to think about very often. For the most part, it is a silent attribute surrounding us with blue skies, bright white snowflakes, multi-colored skis and the golden color of an IPA. Yet the business of color is huge – as in coatings, paints, dyes, stains, pigments and ink.
In the outdoor retail world, color plays an important role in all products, especially apparel. Many apparel designers use color services on whose prediction of the next color trend hang the sell-through of their new lines. Other color selections are based on practicality or tradition, such as very bright colors for safety through enhanced visibility. Psychologically, color communicates part of the product’s identification and therefore marketability.
Regrettably, there is a part of the color process that until recently has not received the kind scrutiny it deserved. It is the significantly negative impact the textile dyeing process is having on the environment, the workers and the bottom line. Fortunately, new technologies are starting to leave their mark on this resource-intensive process. One, referred to as supercritical fluid dyeing using carbon dioxide (CO2), has manufacturers lining up to adopt this process. In order to know how it works and how it contrasts to more traditional dyeing, it is important to first gain a basic understanding of the nature of dyes and the process thereof.
The intent of dyeing is to impart a color to a substrate. Dyes have been designed to achieve that in different ways. By solution, color can pass by adherence to compatible surfaces. They also can be mechanically retained. Sometimes dyes are adsorbed (not to be confused with absorbed), physically attaching to the surface. They also can use salts and metals as agents with which they can chemically bond.
Because the end goal of most dyeing is to retain color integrity over time, dye chemistry has driven itself into solutions often coming with environmental consequences. On a small scale, this would not be such a problem. However, on an industrial scale, there are dire costs, most of which are patently or indirectly apparent:large scale dyeing requires copious amounts of water, dye chemicals and power.“In addition, the increased demand for textile products and the proportional increase in their production, and the use of synthetic dyes have together contributed to dye wastewater becoming one of the substantial sources of severe pollution problems in current times,” according to the 2013 report Textile Dyes: Dyeing Process and Environmental Impact from a group of Brazilian scientists led by Farah Chequer, Ph.D.
Dyeing starts at the fiber, yarn, fabric or finished product level. It is most commonly done in batches, as explained here, or in long continuous lengths. Batch dyeing begins by placing the items to be processed in large metal kiers (vats) where, in various steps, they are washed, dyed and rinsed. They are first washed or scoured to remove oils, additives and other accumulated impurities from manufacture. This eliminates any contamination known to hinder dye uptake and color uniformity. Next, the type of material (e.g. wool, polyester, cotton, nylon, etc) to be dyed is matched to the appropriate dye class. Polyester, the most widely dyed textile category, uses disperse dyes (pigment with chemical enhancers). To help speed up the polyester dyeing process, heat (>100C/212F) and pressure is applied to the tank’s aqueous solution of disperse dye. A typical batch processing time is three to four hours, which includes draining and refilling the vessel multiple times for each step, drying and possibly heat-setting the color on the finished product.
Dyeing polyester in this way consumes a lot of resources, is not efficient and pollutes the environment. One-tenth to 50 percent of dye and its constituents not used during the process are washed away as effluent. Microbiologists at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece (CJ, Ogugbue, et al.), estimated that 200 million tons of dyes are lost annually in such a way. Compounding the problem, wastewater treatment plants have demonstrated ineffectiveness in removing colorant and/or toxicity from the waste stream.
Because of the nature of dyes, they “escape conventional wastewater treatment processes and persist in the environment as a result of their high stability to light, temperature, water, detergents, chemicals, soap and other parameters such as bleach and perspiration,” wrote Chequer and her team in the 2013 study. “In addition, anti-microbial agents resistant to biological degradation are frequently used in the manufacture of textiles, particularly for natural fibers such as cotton.”
The use of water in dyeing is another issue of serious concern. In batch dyeing, every time the kiers are drained and refilled, the contents use five to 10 times their weight in water, according to research published in the Journal of Cleaner Production.
“The oft quoted use of water in cotton production is worth repeating: it has been calculated that approximately 200 liters of water are needed for each kilogram of cotton produced. These effluents are complex mixtures of many pollutants, ranging from original colors lost during the dyeing process, to associated pesticides and heavy metals, and when not properly treated, can cause serious contamination of the water sources,” says the Chequer study.
The impact of water use goes beyond the factory gates, extending into the neighboring communities. As water demand increases and the supply decreases, the price of treated water goes up affecting everyone; particularly those who can least afford it. Some of the communities, such as those mentioned in the above sidebar, are in more arid regions or in drought-affected areas. This adds stress to the already extended water supply.
The challenge is to balance the dwindling water supplies with all levels of industry, domestic needs, agricultural demands and an overtaxed wastewater treatment infrastructure. The dye industry knows the obvious way to help is to reduce its water consumption. Well, it appears a promising new technology is poised to change how some materials are dyed, all without a single drop of water.
Called supercritical fluid dyeing with carbon dioxide (CO2), the initial idea to dye with this method was outlined in a patent application some 24 years ago. A Swiss team headed by Wolfgang Schlenker developed a way to dye hydrophobic materials without leaving much, if any, in the way of dye-waste formation. Today, as it was then, cleaning and recycling the remaining dye bath effluent is problematic and costly. No doubt accelerated by the pace of global warming, the interest in this technology re-emerged. To understand how it works, it helps to recall a simplified version of the phases of matter.
For example, by adjusting the temperature at sea level’s atmospheric pressure, you can transform carbon dioxide to a solid (dry ice), liquid, gas (CO2 fizz in a carbonated drink) or plasma. To make CO2 supercritical, you need to tweak its temperature up to a warm summer’s day or 31C (88F). Then pressurize it to 7.3 MPa (1,059 lb/in2), roughly two-thirds less pressure than a standard 80 cubic foot SCUBA tank. The result is a phase in which the CO2 behaves like a gas and a liquid.
Therein lies the magic-taking advantage of the gas-like properties of the supercritical fluid CO2. Suffusion through the fibers is way easier, faster and more complete than an aqueous dye solution could ever be. Since the polyester fibers swell in this state, the dye mixed within the supercritical CO2 is more profoundly diffused into the fibers. When the dyeing is done and the pressurized supercritical CO2 removed, the dye molecules are trapped within the shrinking polyester fiber, according to the report Textile Dyeing in Supercritical Carbon Dioxide out of Delft University of Technology, in The Netherlands (Van der Kraan, M. et al).
Super critical CO2 pressure vessel for rolled textiles. Hasaka Works, LTD, Osaka, Japan
Partially surveying the advantages of supercritical fluid CO2 makes for a strong argument for its adoption. For one, it does not use water. So the scouring process in traditional dyeing is eliminated. Without washing, there is no drying or wastewater treatment, reducing power consumption and the inescapable pollution. Pigments, not disperse dyes, are used since the additional surfactants and chemical dispersing agents are not necessary. In fact, once the dyeing process is concluded, the remaining unused pigment can be recycled. Most all of the CO2 is recycled, ready to be changed back to its supercritical self. There is no post-dye drying cycle or heat-setting stage, so no need for additional power consumption there, as well.
The dye processing time and energy is reduced from 30 percent to 50 percent, according to research from Yeh Group. Dye quality itself yields a more consistent color and the dyed product’s physical characteristics match those of legacy dyeing methods. On top of that, carbon dioxide itself is basically inert, cheap and overly abundant. Another plus is its use does not require or yield volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
|Comparative energy requirements* (kJ)|
|Process||Conventional||Supercritical Fluid CO2|
|Total energy used||53,605||35,180|
|*Actual results will vary by country and by dyeing equipment.|
Source: Yeh Group’s DryDye comparison to conventional dyeing methods
To dye for?
Indeed, supercritical CO2 dyeing looks pretty good compared to the current industrial methods. Yet it is always important to take a critical look before leaping into any new technology, and commissioning LCAs (life cycle assessments) are one way of examining the impact of any new process for hidden or potential disrupters.
The Dutch company DyeCoo Textile Systems, BV did just that, having a LCIA (life cycle impact assessment) on its supercritical CO2 technology. LCIAs are similar to LCAs but look at specific emissions, expressing them in terms of their potential impact. In this study, Eutrophication, ozone depletion, global warming, acidification and photochemical ozone creation potential were quantified. Primary energy demand, human and eco-toxicity and process water used also were scrutinized. The study compared DyeCoo’s supercritical CO2 process to jet dyeing rather than kier dyeing, per this article. Although there is more energy used in jet dyeing, the results would remain the same: supercritical fluid dyeing with CO2 is a categorically superior method for dyeing polyester. For other types of materials such as cotton that do not swell in supercritical CO2, adding an electrical field (electrophoresis) to the dye solution looks to solve that problem.
Dyeing has the unenviable distinction of being the locus of waste production in textiles. Excessive water usage in areas with stressed water supplies, overburdened wastewater treatment systems and persistent, hard-to-remove effluents from the waste stream are hallmarks of this industry’s problem. With the event of supercritical fluid dyeing with CO2, the tide could very well be turning many shades greener.
China’s Dye – In the center of this industry is China
As one can imagine, China, the world’s leading exporter of textiles, is also the world’s dyeing center. Since 1995, China has been increasing its market share of the textile production business. In 2010, Shaoxing County National Economy and Social Development Journal reports of producing more than 17 billion meters (18,591,426,072 of yards) dyed fabric and more than 130 million items of clothing in 2010.
In comparative terms, the dyed textile’s length is equivalent in distance to driving around the earth 424.5 times. And that is just Shaoxing County, which is the biggest textile center in China, representing one third of China’s textile manufacturing. In Zhejiang Provence, Shaoxing County boasts having 30 percent or more of the dyeing business and has upward of 9,000 textile mills (Source: Toxic Threads: Putting Pollution on Parade. How textile manufacturers are hiding their toxic trail. Greenpeace International Nov 2012).
WHERE OH WEARABLES
“Activity trackers put wearable computing in arm’s reach of outdoor specialty”
By Martin Vilaboy
There’s little doubt that wearable technology, at least in its most general definition, represents a massive opportunity of almost unlimited potential for an entire ecosystem of market contestants. The various sensors, displays and mini-computers worn on or placed in the body eventually will be part of the day-to-day lives of nearly every person in developed countries.
Yeah, we are that confident it is that big.
At the same time, the entire space is currently in the throes of the type of over-hype and unreal expectations that are common to new but potentially disruptive technologies. On Gartner’s oft-cited technology Hype Cycle, “wearable unit interface” currently stands near the “peak of inflated expectations,” still yet to face its “trough of disillusionment,” before striding into the “slope of enlightenment” and eventually onto its “plateau of productivity.” The much-related “Internet of things” likewise is about to hit its peak of hype, as well.
Perhaps it’s no surprise market projections for wearable devices range anywhere between about $5 billion a year to as much as $50 billion by 2018. Projections can be tricky with nascent to emerging technologies and markets. After all, it’s possible the breakthrough devices or services that take wearable tech over the mass-adoption hump – the proverbial “killer apps,” so to speak – don’t even exist yet.
Even so, most outdoor retailers can’t wait to see what the future brings. As it turns out, one of the first applications of wearable computers lands right in the wheelhouse of many brands serving active and fitness-minded consumers. Sure, wearable tech applications such as MindRDR’s head-mounted hardware, which uses brainwaves to let GoogleGlass wearers take a picture just by thinking about it, or diapers that alert parents when they need changing, represent limited opportunity for outdoor dealers. But the segment of wearables known as “activity trackers,” – so far mostly wrist-worn devices that monitor and communicate things such as motion, sleep, location, heart rate and other body functions – have hit the market full stride, with a full assortment of offerings already targeted to outdoor and sporting goods channels.
Source: Parks Associates
Part of a move toward “fitness optimization” and the “quantified self,” U.S. sales of connected digital activity trackers doubled between 2012 and 2013, growing to 4.9 million units from 2.4 million the prior year, according to figures from Parks Associates. Meanwhile, total venture funding for biosensing wearables jumped from $20 million in 2011 to $229 million in 2013, say consultants at Rock Health, with dozens of companies now providing the technology that goes into bio and activity trackers. ABI Research, for its part, expects 10 million activity trackers to be shipped in 2014, along with 7 million smartwatches, and it’s been estimated that activity trackers already represent a $1 billion to $2 billion market.
So for brands making inventory decisions for Summer 2015 and ’16, the issue is less about how big the wearable opportunity will become and more about the current rates of adoption, consumer attitudes toward and understanding of today’s devices and services, and what it will take to push wearables over the mainstream mountain. The hype says wearbles are “ready for the mainstream” right now. Reality suggests there is still a good bit of evangelical work required, as well as some fine-tuning to the first-generation of product.
Source: Endeavor Partners
Currently, it’s estimated that about 1 to 2 percent of U.S. consumers own an activity tracker, such as a watch or wristband type wearable tech device. Within these sales, NPD Group’s point-of-sale data show the top three activity trackers (Nike+ Fuelband, FitBit Force and Jawbone Up 24) accounting for 97 percent of units sold.
Interest in Wearable Tech Among U.S. Adult
|Very interested||Somewhat interested||A little interested||Not at all interested||Own something like this already|
|Watch or wristband type wearable tech||10%||17%||18%||53%||1%|
|Headset or glasses type wearable tech||10%||11%||16%||63%||1%|
|Some other type of wearable tech||8%||17%||20%||54%||1%|
Source: Harris Poll
In terms of near-future sales potential, surveys from Harris Interactive suggest one out of 10 American adults appear to be strong candidates for early adoption. That’s how many respondents to a Harris Poll of more than 2,500 U.S. adults said they were “very interested” in owning a “watch or wristband type wearable tech.” That same percentage also strongly agreed that “wearable tech could be useful in my life,” while a similar 11 percent strongly agreed that wearable tech “can be stylish.” Likewise, about one in 10 also strongly disagree that wearable trackers “are just a fad.”
Even if a good majority of this 10 percent purchase a tracker, it likely will require converting good chunks of the additional 17 percent and 18 percent of U.S. adults who are “somewhat interested” or “a little interested,” respectively, before the traditional “tipping point” to widespread adoption is reached.
Indeed, the Harris findings suggest U.S. consumers are split pretty evenly when it comes to their perceptions of wearable devices. Just less than half of consumers appear to “get it,” and are able to envision how an activity tracker could bring value to their lives. Overall, 46 percent of U.S. adults are at least a little interested in owning a watch or wristband type wearable tech device, while just more than half of Americans believe wearable tech in some form could benefit them in at least one way.
On the flipside, 53 percent of respondent say they are “not at all interested” in a wrist-worn wearable, while 63 percent have no interest in wearable tech in the form of a headset or smart glasses. Nearly half of respondents (46 percent) can’t yet envision any benefit that wearable tech brings to their lives, show the Harris findings, while 49 percent believe wearable computing is “just a fad.” In other words, about half of consumers could be described as uninformed at best, skeptical at worst.
“How strongly do you agree or disagree with the following statements?”
|Strongly agree||Somewhat agree||Disagree (NET)||Somewhat disagree||Strongly disagree||Not at all sure|
|I think wearable tech is just a fad||21%||29%||35%||24%||11%||15%|
|I do not think wearable tech is likely to become common, the way smartphones have||18%||30%||37%||24%||13%||15%|
|I think wearable tech can be stylish||11%||32%||41%||19%||22%||16%|
|I think wearable tech could be useful for my life||10%||30%||47%||18%||30%||13%|
|I’d only be interested in wearable tech if it could replace something I already use, such as a smartphone||9%||28%||45%||19%||26%||18%|
Source: Harris Poll
Of course, consumers generally have difficulty fully grasping the value of technologies that are not yet completely familiar to them, and it appears wearable tech is still a bit of a mystery to the large majority of U.S. adults. A full 70 percent of those surveyed by Harris, for example, indicates that they are either not at all familiar with such devices (37 percent) or they’ve heard the term but don’t know anything more about it (33 percent).
“This lack of familiarity is playing a role in the fact that roughly six in 10 Americans don’t understand the need for wearable tech,” say Harris researchers.
The uncertainty is leading to some trepidation when Americans are asked at what point, if ever, they would consider purchasing wearable tech. While 17 percent say they will consider doing so when it drops to a reasonable price and roughly one in 10 will consider it when they believe the “bugs” have been worked out, more than a third (36 percent) – the largest segment by far – simply say they are not sure, and an additional 19 percent say they will never consider buying a wearable tech device.
“In the end, Americans aren’t yet displaying truly decisive opinions either for or against wearable tech, which may reflect a simple lack of clear understanding of the category as a whole,” say Harris researchers. “The variety of devices coming to market thus far, and the inconsistency of roles they’re designed to fill in consumers’ lives, can make it hard for the public to wrap its head around just what these devices are all about.”
In other words, the “category’s essentially limitless possibilities are actually working against it, making it harder for consumers to wrap their collective heads around the segment,” said Aaron Kane, senior research director at Harris Interactive.
“When will you consider purchasing a wearable tech device?”
|Echo Boomers (18-36)||Gen Xers (37-48)||Baby Boomers (49-67)||Matures (68+)||Men||Women|
|When it drops to a price I think is reasonable||17%||23%||21%||13%||10%||22%||13%|
|When I believe the “bugs” have been worked out||9%||11%||13%||5%||6%||10%||7%|
|When they include features I can’t get anywhere else||7%||12%||6%||6%||2%||7%||8%|
|When I read or hear positive feedback from people using them||7%||9%||6%||5%||6%||7%||6%|
|When my favorite tech manufacturer offers them||2%||4%||2%||1%||–||3%||2%|
|I will never consider buying a wearable tech device||19%||11%||17%||24%||31%||17%||22%|
|I already have a wearable tech device||3%||3%||2%||4%||2%||3%||3%|
Source: Harris Poll
As with most new consumer technologies, interest is strongest among younger cohorts. Echo boomers are more likely than Gen Xers, Baby Boomers or Matures to show interest in wrist-worn wearables, see the usefulness of wearable tech in general and find it fashionable to wear, show Harris findings. The tough news here is that Echo Boomers, who are most informed about the technology, also appear to be the most discerning. Echo Boomers are significantly more likely to express concerns over wearable tech and to say that wearable must meet their needs better than current technology or replace something they already use.
As also might be expected, there is a bimodal distribution of interest among varying age groups of early adopters, say researchers at strategy consulting firm Endeavor Partners. Those who fall in the 24 to 34 age range are primarily focused on fitness optimization. An older cohort of adopters between ages 55 and 64, “are focused on improving overall health and extending their lives,” Endeavor’s research shows.
Likewise somewhat common with new gadgets and tech gizmos, men are more likely than women to show at least a little interest in smart watches and wristbands (52 percent among men vs. 40 percent among women), show Harris figures, and adults with children are substantially more interested in activity trackers than those without (59 percent among those with children under 18 vs. 41 percent among those without). The latter might be attributable to the availability of geo-locating tracking devices designed to keep kids from getting lost.
Success for many vendors and retailers, of course, goes beyond initial interest and adoption. In the midst of the frenzy of anticipation, researchers at Endeavor exposed what they call “the dirty secret of wearables,” which could have substantial impact on the eventual mass market penetration of the first generation of wrist-worn trackers. Through its survey of thousands of Internet-connected respondents, Endeavor found that activity trackers so far fail to drive long-term engagement for a plurality of users.
More than half of U.S. consumers who have owned a modern activity tracker no longer use it, while a third of U.S. consumers who have owned one stopped using the device within six months of receiving it.
“Success is defined by the degree to which these devices and services make a long-term impact on their users’ health and happiness,” warns the consulting firm.
Source: Endeavor Partners
In addition to the traditional criteria a product must meet in order to drive adoption and utilization (quality, fit, aesthetics, utility, out-of-box ease, etc.), Dan Ledger, an Endeavor Partners principal, suggests product developers and buyers of wearable tech consider three factors of behavioral science that will drive long-term engagement: habit formation, social motivation and goal reinforcement.
Psychologists define habits as automatic behaviors or routines that are triggered by situational cues, which are then followed by some form of reward. For example, when we feel lonely (internal trigger) or receive a push notification (external trigger) while riding the subway (situational cue), we check our Twitter feed (behavior), and may experience pleasure (reward), explain Ledger and study co-author and behavioral scientist Daniel McCaffrey.
Wearable devices that move beyond presenting data (steps, calories, stairs) and directly address the elements of the habit loop (cue, behavior, reward), while triggering the sequences that lead to the establishment of new, positive habits, will make the process of habit formation more effective and efficient, argue Ledger and McCaffrey.
The two point to the Basis smart watch as an example of an effective habit change sequence solution. The watch uses four types of sensors to calculate various health metrics, including steps taken, calories burned, sleep quality and resting heart rate. As Basis users navigate the initial goal setting process, the device sets up a sequence of key habit formation elements – cues, routines and rewards.
“Basis’ concentration on wellness as a whole, instead of specifically on exercise, helps produce long-term sustained engagement,” says the study.
Basis only lets users set one goal for the following week, since research shows that building life habits is easier when people add changes in small increments over time, say Ledger and McCaffrey. “The Basis goal-setting sequence requires users to unlock the ability to add new habits by acquiring points (reward) after completing a previous goal related to successfully establishing a habit. From here, daily cues, routines and rewards are continuously sequenced to develop habits for better health.”
Along with rewards, social connections can be a powerful source of motivation as well. When users are able to share their goals or compete for goals with an audience or group, they are more committed to achieving those goals, show behavioral studies. An early example of effectively leveraging social in an activity tracker is Polar Loop’s Flow Web service, which allows users to connect, share and encourage other Polar Loop users around the world. Users are able to view and share running or cycling routes, see training routes of “friends” and get data on routes from locals when traveling.
Nike+ Fuelband, FitBit Force and Jawbone Up 24
“Wearables may be the next frontier of online social networking as they have the potential to integrate the mechanisms of sociability into our health, work and daily lives,” say the Endeavor researchers.
Lastly, achieved sustained engagement requires users to experience a sense of progress toward defined goals, says Ledger, and in most cases achieving several smaller goals (baby steps) provides the needed momentum necessary to reaching larger goals. Essentially, by setting smaller goals, people are less likely to over-reach and fall short.
“One unique characteristic of wearable devices is their persistent presence,” explains the Endeavor study. “These wearable devices now are able to track steps, calories, heart rate and body temperature, among other metrics, and do so both passively and constantly. By being constantly connected to our devices, we remain connected to our goals and can experience our progress via on-demand feedback.”
The Nike+ Fuelband, for instance, notifies users about “hours won or lost” based on activity level for that hour. If users “win the hour,” they are given positive feedback. Other devices, such as the Jawbone Up24 and the Fitbit Force, send users hourly text message push notifications to support progress.
Ultimately, wearable tech is part of the massive “Internet of things,” the ubiquitous network of gazillions of smart devices talking to each other and supposedly bettering our lives. As part of this expanding network, wearables would seem subject to the “Network Effect,” whereby the value of a network grows in proportion to the number of end points attached to it. In other words, devices that can communicate with an expanding ecosystem of data, platforms, services and software logically have an advantage.
“How strongly do you agree or disagree with the following statements?”
|Strongly agree||Somewhat agree||Disagree (NET)||Somewhat disagree||Strongly disagree||Not at all sure|
|Wearable tech devices must meet my needs better than current technology for me to use them||35%||28%||16%||7%||9%||20%|
|I don’t understand the need for wearable tech devices||3%||28%||27%||17%||10%||14%|
|I want wearable tech devices to be clearly visible if they have a camera||33%||25%||20%||9%||10%||23%|
|I want to see wearable tech devices make a major impact in the healthcare industry||20%||31%||20%||9%||11%||28%|
|I’d like to be able to access smartphone functions without having to dig in my pocket or bag||18%||30%||32%||14%||18%||20%|
|I would be more likely to use a wearable tech device if it couldn’t be seen||16%||27%||32%||16%||16%||25%|
|I want to see wearable tech devices make a major impact in the fitness industry||15%||27%||28%||14%||14%||29%|
|Wearable tech devices are the next step to enhancing people’s lives||11%||26%||37%||20%||17%||26%|
|I want to see wearable tech devices make a major impact in the home automation industry||12%||23%||32%||16%||17%||32%|
Source: Harris Poll
If the recent history of consumer technology is any indication, devices that do not force new behavior but allow users to adjust and adapt to new capabilities stand a better chance of success, says Shehryar Khan, principal, Deloitte Consulting. Similarly, product developers should be careful about requiring too much ongoing response from the user, keeping interaction to a minimum.
“Simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication, and transparency is the ultimate form of simplicity,” Khan warns. “If a use case requires an explicit user response, it should be limited to spoken commands, gestures or a gloved knuckle tap. Minuscule displays require discipline in not only what information should be displayed but how to present it.”
What’s more, “Don’t design a wearable experience for a function that’s more effectively done on a smartphone, a tablet, or a piece of paper,” says Khan.
Indeed, there is a fair amount of pressure on product developers, as it could very well take a breakthrough device or two to really push wearable tech into mainstream acceptance. But with the recent and ongoing advancements in material science driving things such as technology miniaturization and battery improvements, it’s not hard to imagine a device or two coming along that captures widespread attention.
Where wearable computing goes from there is hard to say, but it certainly extends far beyond activity trackers and biosensors, even just within outdoor and sporting goods. We’re already seeing early applications within apparel, protective sports gear and athletic training tools.
Ultimately, wearable tech’s inherent link to mobile computing (smartphones) and the “Internet of Everything” put it on scale with that type of adoption and a similar never-ending array of related applications. The potential ecosystem on the horizon truly is near-infinite. In the meantime, businesses that face profit and loss statements in the next few quarters must be careful not to get spun by the initial and inevitable hype cycle.
Tracking the Next Step
Activity trackers and biosensors may be the first application of wearable computing that interest outdoor companies, but it is far from the last. Sure, outdoor marketers will no doubt attach the term “wearable tech” to existing technologies such as moisture management or anti-odor, but the trends toward performance and fitness optimization, the quantified self and electronic health monitoring are producing some interesting products that provide insight into the ways wearable computing may appear on the racks and shelves of outdoor, sports and fitness retailers in the near future.
An obvious, and arguably the largest, area of opportunity lies within e-textiles. Among many recent developments, German company Match2Blue integrated activity tracking into a performance top. The Ambiotex t-shirt, expected to be available in October, measures vital parameters such as pulse rate, breathing, heart-rate variability, calorie consumption and physical activity. Readings collected by the shirt can be displayed in real time on a smartphone or tablet.
Elsewhere, textiles are being developed with microcontrollers that incorporate touch buttons designed to operate portable devices, such as music players, as well as solar panels that can be used to charge portable devices. Researchers at Cornell University have even developed a technology that converts cotton fiber into conductive material.
Reebok, meanwhile, recently unveiled a skullcap to be worn under a helmet that monitors blows to the head and warns of a possible concussion. A small tab projects over the back of a player’s neck. A yellow blinking light means the player took a moderate whack to the head. A red blinking light is the sign of a more severe hit. Reebok’s Checklight skullcap also keeps track of the number of hits a player has taken.
Then there’s Zepps Labs, which has developed small devices that attach to golf clubs and baseball or softballs bats in order to provide swing analytics so players can learn precisely what swing mechanics consistently produce the best results. Dubbed “Results Tagging,” users tag each swing with information such as hit type, direction and even speed. Once tagged, the Zepp system analyzes each swing and produces a detailed report with valuable swing performance insights. Since no two players are the same, Zepp also helps users set personalized swing goals.