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Key Takeaways:

  • AI wearables are poised to make a quiet-then-sudden impact on the fashion industry, much like AI has infiltrated other aspects of consumer technology, software, and services.
  • The integration of AI into wearables presents new possibilities and capabilities, potentially reinvigorating a stagnant category.
  • The cultural considerations around mixed reality and audio / video capture wearables that incorporate AI are going to take time to resolve, but the devices themselves are likely to be seen on the street much sooner than you might expect.

Survey: The State Of Supply Chain And Sourcing Strategies

While you read this week’s analysis, consider sparing 10 minutes to complete our anonymous survey on the state of supply chain and sourcing strategies. We’re looking to build an objective benchmark of how the objectives of sourcing teams are evolving at a time of disruption, and how technology is – and isn’t – supporting them.

What the proliferation of AI could mean for a resurgence of wearable technology

Generative AI is now everywhere. And it’s not something you have to seek out any more – as we did when ChatGPT burst onto the scene last year. It’s embedded into the tools we use and the websites we visit.

You can barely turn a corner online, or in consumer software and experiences, today without hitting a large language model – to the extent that it almost seems pointless to call it out when it happens. To put it as bluntly as possible: AI is just computers now. And that transformation seems to have picked up an extremely rapid pace in the last few months, going from quiet pilot programmes to sudden ubiquity.

So AI is also, unsurprisingly, in the news a lot – for some valid reasons and some not-so-valid ones. This week’s stories are no different, so we’re going to start with the questionable ones.

In the latest display of “smart” fashion, this week, US tech giant Adobe debuted Project Primrose at Adobe MAX Sneaks 2023: a silver interactive dress that uses generative AI… in some capacity? The dress can change its fabric pattern, colours and style while being worn, using rows of modular tiles that change and react to reflect new designs (using a binary colour scheme the same way e-ink shells over cars have been exhibited doing over the last year or two) in real-time. The idea was to create a “wearable and flexible dress” made with non-emissive textiles (read, eco-friendly) to act as a canvas for content creators and designers to stream their simplistic designs (made with Adobe applications, naturally.) And there are rumours suggesting that Adobe has already tried this type of display on handbags and will also be implementing it in furniture in the near future.

While many are praising the digital dress for being cutting-edge and representative of the exciting confluence of fashion and AI, others are less convinced. The criticism: the actual canvas for expression was very limited, and the involvement of AI was therefore confined solely to experimenting with a small number of permutations of black and white tiles. And there’s little arguing that the dress felt pretty incongruous as part of a showcase of otherwise genuinely impressive applications of generative AI.

But given the presentation, it seems that the dress was always intended to be a proof-of-concept – or more optimistically – a glimpse into the future of interactive wearables, intending to inspire people and drive creative vision by demonstrating the idea that generative ideas don’t have to stay confined to the desktop.

Outside this on-stage curio, though, the entire conversation around wearable technology is reopening thanks to the integration of AI into a category that otherwise stagnated a long time ago.

Cast your mind back, and garments embedded with technology have largely been confined to the experimentation phase, drawing a lot of online interest, but never reaching long-lasting commercialisation. We all remember Levi’s Commuter x Jacquard by Google Trucker Jacket (a team effort by Levi Strauss & Co and Google’s Advanced Technology and Products (ATAP) group) which enabled “interactivity” by weaving denim with conductive yarn, and putting interfaces and accessories at either end of that wiring to allow users to control music, navigation, messaging, and calls from their smartphones without having to stop and take out the device itself. These were designed specifically to meet the needs of urban cyclists, who need a hands-free experience, and the idea itself was sound. But in March 2023, Google confirmed that it was sunsetting the app responsible for the Jacquard accessories.

What’s interesting to note here is that voice control should, in theory, have put the final nail in the Jacquard coffin quite a while prior. There are very few scenarios where swiping your sleeve to change a music track, for example, is a more convenient experience than asking your voice assistant to do it.

Image element courtesy of oura ring.

So why did the pilot hang around until this year? The glib answer is that voice assistants are still, by and large, pretty poor substitutes for human interface devices. The more likely answer is that what people want from technology integrated into their clothes (or from technology designed to be worn) is new capabilities and new possibilities that justify wearing it, not just shortcuts to things they have other ways of doing.

Fitness trackers are a prime example: the Oura Ring, the Apple Watch, and other categories where donning an accessory surfaces new possibilities and new insights the wearer didn’t have access to before. These are strong instances of people putting technology on their bodies because it did something new. And if you take that idea to its next destination, we arrive at the fabled smart glasses (the latest iterations of which are available for pre-order now) and the looming spectre of a whole new generation of people walking around with mixed-reality headgear on.

You might not like the person who steps into a lift with you, or stands in the line for coffee behind you, wearing a Meta Quest 3… but you certainly won’t be able to deny that they’re doing something new by wearing technology.

The Interline previously wrote about Humane, the startup launched by ex-Apple design and engineering duo Imran Chaudhri and Bethany Bongiorno. That demo was criticised – rightly – for being a lot of smoke and mirrors, but the company has now, at least, revealed some details about its first product: the Humane Ai Pin. In a press release from June, the pair explained: “The Humane Ai Pin is a new type of standalone device with a software platform that harnesses the power of AI to enable innovative personal computing experiences. The connected and intelligent clothing-based wearable device uses a range of sensors that enable contextual and ambient compute interactions.”

The pin was designed to attach to clothing via a magnet and so can be worn wherever desired, and it recently made its runway debut on the jackets and pant pockets at French brand Coperni. The brand is notorious for their technology-based stunts during Paris Fashion Week, including spray-painting fabric to make a dress, having robot dogs trot about the runway. But this time, they embraced the understated.

Even with its miniature size, the pin is positioned as being powerful for the consumer with its advanced intelligence, performing many smartphone functions with a single tap. This includes summarising emails and calendar invites, translating languages, and handling phone calls – all while reducing the need for complex gestures or voice commands.

We don’t know much more about its self-sufficiency, compatibility with third-party applications, and its general user interaction, which will all become more relevant considering potential competition from Apple’s former chief design officer Jony Ive – who is rumoured to have an iPhone of AI in the works.

“[Humane’s] Ai Pin presents an opportunity for people to take AI with them everywhere and to unlock a new era of personal mobile computing which is seamless, screenless, and sensing,” Chaudhri and Bongiorno said in their statement. And based on the startup’s partnerships, it really will be everywhere. Humane announced various far-reaching, strategic partnerships to propel its platform and services into the market. Microsoft will provide the necessary cloud processing power, while SK Networks will manage the distribution aspect. Humane is also working closely with OpenAI to integrate its technology into its forthcoming device. In parallel, LG is engaged in collaborative R&D projects to support the evolution of Humane’s products and adapt the technology for smart home devices. And if that wasn’t enough,, Humane is exploring potential collaborations with Volvo for its part in the automotive industry.

That’s a lot of embedding AI in our clothes and our surroundings in a very short period of time. Almost certainly too much to be even remotely realistic. But, crucially, Humane is definitely not the only company making a bet on the idea that wearing AI, and having it capture data from the world around us, and project data back out visually and audibly, is one of the next frontiers of both computing and fashion.

Take Rewind AI’s more-than-slightly terrifying wearable pendant,  intended to “give humans superpowers” by augmenting our memory. The Pendant has the capability to constantly record real-world audio, transcribe it, encrypt the data, and store it solely on your phone – ensuring complete local storage. Like its pin peer, there is not a whole lot of detail on the pendant yet (and it’s yet to make a high fashion debut), but it’s another example of a discreet AI technology that has the potential to permeate our lives very suddenly.

image courtesy of rewind pendant.

You might remember the first time you stand in a queue next to someone who’s wearing a necklace that records everything around them, so their personalised AI can parse it all for them later… but how long until you stop noticing it, and that just becomes part of the background of everyday life? The kneejerk answer is that that’s never going to become normal, obviously, and that Google Glass failed for precisely that reason. But to that counter-argument we’d say: if you’d put today’s generative AI in Google Glass, would it have failed? Or would we all find it unremarkable that everyone around us was capturing and subjectively analysing the world with the help of AI?

All of which brings us full circle, back around to the idea of just how quietly and quickly AI can sneak up on us all. ChatGPT was released less than a year ago, and now it – and alternatives like Meta AI, Anthropics’ Claude and so on – are part of a huge array of consumer software and services.

Exactly how long will it take for AI wearables to be mainstream? A similar amount of time? More, because there’s the additional hurdle of making them fashionable to clear? For the subtle and functional kind: likely sooner than later because of their vast potential for creatives, the consumer, as well as for the c-suite. Who doesn’t want their memory “augmenting”? And of the cohort that does, how many are willing to wear something unobtrusive to make that possible?

Regarding dresses and similar wearables as devices, their mainstream adoption might take a while longer and could continue to be confined to making a splash within marketing campaigns, and sparking conversations following runway appearances or red carpet events. After all, with celebrities jumping on the AI bandwagon – Kendall Jenner (among others) made her AI debut for Meta this week as a new assistant named “Billie” – it could be soon that they appear more frequently wearing AI-powered physical garments. And speaking of the potential of subtle AI – developing AI assistants with personalities is something brands could leverage to connect with customers on a new level.

From its manifestation as something subtle and sophisticated, to the daring and dramatic – the progression of wearable AI technology is one that highlights our relationship with technology in fashion as going from convenience to something more symbiotic – growing closer to a more intuitive, human-centric way of using technology. So, sooner rather than later, we’ll be faced with the possibility of having our AI and wearing it, too – or trying in vain to avoid being recorded by the people who do.

The best of The Interline:

This week The Interline announced that we will again we producing The DPC Report: our second look behind the curtain of digital product creation in apparel and footwear – from the vast possibility space of digital assets, to the practical reality of pipeline-building and cultural transformation. Free to download this December.

The CEO of The Sustainable Apparel Coalition explains why the scale and the speed of the change that planet and people demand will only be met through urgent, collective action.

We talk to Co-Founder of ettos, Adriana Batty, about Digital Product Passports (DPPs), mapping supply chains back to fibre sources, and how centralising the product journey in a shared platform can change the way fashion brand make the most meaningful decisions.

Originally published in The Interline’s first Sustainability Report Megan Doyle asks why ‘Fashion Prioritises Planet Over People’?

And, finally, the latest in the Kornit Digital UK LIVE series continues to shine a spotlight on print-on-demand’s role in enabling a digital supply chain.