Europe's first intelligent garments aren't cheap, but could soon be the clothes we can't afford to be without (director-e News, Tuesday 19 February).
Reima's Smart 3305 body belt uses GSM technology to allow snowboarders, for example, to stay in touch on the mountains.
Imagine a world where people are encased in an individual 'bodynet', a wireless, apparel-based computer network that lets them make phone calls, check e-mail, watch TV, listen to music and pay bills as they walk down the street.
Michael Dertouzos, the late director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Laboratory for Computer Science, forecast that scenario in his 1997 book, What Will Be.
Sounds farfetched? Well, since then, the technology and fashion media have promised consumers that computer-enabled intelligent clothes - perhaps the first forerunners of bodynets - will soon be de rigueur.
Yet apart from a very small pilot project last year involving wired jackets made by jeansmaker Levi Strauss & Co. and Dutch electronics company Philips, wearware remains a rare-rare commodity.
But now a Finnish clothing company, Reima, has become the first European firm to launch a full line of technically enabled apparel. Its first product is the Smart 3305, a ski parka with a detachable body belt (which can be bought separately) that allows the wearer to make a one-way GSM call by pulling a tag and talking into a shoulder microphone.
"You can compare it to a walkie-talkie, which is also one-way communication but with limited range", says managing director Pentti Hurmerinta. "This has global range".
Reima is targeting mountain climbers, skiers and hikers by marketing the unit as safety gear. Other potential customers include ski schools, emergency rescue teams and companies that employ outdoor crews, like construction firms.
Reima is now working on a second version that offers two-way wireless phone calls, as well as an undershirt that can monitor the wearer's pulse. Also in development is a fabric 'pocket' with a built-in web browser that can be worn on a shirt or jacket. Its display screen slides out from the pocket, and the browser makes a wap connection to the Internet.
Smart clothing technology doesn't come cheap: the belt retails for around £210, the jacket for £220. Reima hopes to sell 500 of the belt/jacket ensembles this year at sportswear shops and 4,500 of the belts through mobile phone stores. The company projects sales of 30,000 items next year, with the belt alone accounting for 90 percent of the market.
That will easily exceed the 2,500 jackets sold by Levi in its year-old experiment. Levi offered them at a handful of outlets across Europe, at £400 to £600. Each jacket had a mobile phone and an MP3 player stitched into it.
The company says it was a success, though not everyone agrees. "They sat on the shelves", says Matt Devlin, a salesperson at Bikeadelic, a London motorcycle shop that handles urban sportswear. "We sold one or two, and I think the boss gave one to his son".
While Levi isn't committing itself to any further intelligent clothes, Philips Design, a research unit within the parent company, is working on the next generation of wearable electronics, which won't rely on off-the-shelf technology.
Philips has created materials that conduct electricity, embroidered sensors and fabrics with switches, wiring and flexible displays as part of the fabric construction. And though Philips Design CEO Stefano Marzano won't comment on timing, he notes: "We are exploring with another (clothing) brand opportunities for the mass market".
Still, bringing intelligent clothing to market is a difficult process, which explains why there have been more promises than products. "If it were easy, everyone would be doing it", says Alberto De Conti, Levi's innovation team leader.
Garment makers and electronics manufacturers, for example, have very different approaches to R & D. Clothing companies usually take 18 months to bring a new product to market; four to five years is the norm for an electronics firm. Another slight problem is that electronics designers never had to worry in the past about having their gadgets survive in washing machines and dryers.
Marzano says that sewing existing technology into clothes or accessories doesn't achieve the economies of scale necessary to produce products with mass appeal cheaply - hence Reima's and Levi's huge price tags. But Philips Design's new materials are less expensive to produce, he claims, giving them greater market potential.
Hurmerinta says that, initially, intelligent clothes must offer more than novelty to avoid the stigma of short-term trendiness. That's why Reima is concentrating on clothes that are "functional and practical".
He's convinced that within 10 years wearable technology will become as common as mobile phones. "The potential market is just as big", he says.
If he's right, we all may be wearing bodynets sooner than even MIT's Dertouzos imagined