While the name of the game in sports is data in all its forms, the data is largely observational—athlete performance, conversations on social, event attendance and participation.

The new frontier is about tapping into the athlete on a very personal level and using data and machine learning to inform and improve performance. New players in the field are changing the dress code to marry bleeding-edge technology with apparel and design, and the results are some of the most interesting wearable innovations in a generation.

And the market is responding with expected growth to $4 billion by 2024 from its 2016 level of $150 million (LiveMint, 2019). According to Gartner, the forecast of units of smart clothing shipments will increase from 5.65 million in 2018 to nearly 7 million in 2019 (Gartner, 2018).

Knickers with a twist

Meet Billie Whitehouse and Wearable X, the company she cofounded in 2013, which manufactures and sells $249 tech-woven yoga pants that literally hit all the right spots. Wearable X launched its first direct-to-consumer product, the “Nadi X” yoga pants, in May 2017 with initial success.

Featuring pulse sensors woven into the hips, knees and ankles, the Nadi X guides both women and men to achieve the ultimate Lotus, Downward-Facing-Dog or any other yoga pose or Asana while, at the same time, guarding from sports injury. And it’s not just a gimmick; Wearable X worked with an advisory group representing 600 physical therapists to perfect the design and functionality of the Nadi X. The corresponding app the Nadi X is paired with includes around 40 poses as well as music to help you chill.

What Whitehouse and her brand have realized is that people need to be made aware of the value these types of products can provide, to really take this type of wearable mainstream. “What’s important is that from seed growth, the industry is about to hit that tipping point when it becomes a norm, and I know this because of how deep I am in the inside track,” according to Whitehouse. “Everything now is a data game: to understand your customers properly you have to have sophisticated data, and it has to be meaningful to the customer—you have to make their life better, and that’s why I’ve always focused on consumer products because I believe I can have that ability to make a consumer’s life better through data.”

The Sydney-born Whitehouse first launched Wearable Experiments (now Wearable X) in 2013 with a product centered around touch. Based on the haptic platform and in partnership with Durex, she created “Fundawear,” a range of vibrating underwear for couples in long-distance relationships. A range of fan jerseys followed, including The Alert Shirt with Fox Sports (Foxtel), Fan Jersey (X) launched at Super Bowl 50 in 2015, and the EURO Fan Shirt, which was featured as part of an activation during Manchester Citizens Weekend with 3,000 fans.

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Other front runners in the space include Canadian-based Hexoskin with a line of smart shirts capable of tracing the wearer’s heart rate, heart rate recovery, heart rate variability, breathing rate, VO2 max, minute ventilation, activity level, acceleration, calories, cadence and steps. Hexoskin claims that its products have even been picked up by a number of space agencies, military organizations and professional sports teams around the world—a selling point for athletes tracking and training to improve their performance in extremely small and precise increments.

French fashion-tech company Spinali Design has created a range of connected clothing, including jeans, dresses and bikinis. SUPAspot has created the Supa Powered Sports Bra, which is a mash up of neon, a heart rate sensor and AI. And Skiin, also from Canada, provides remote diagnostics and therapy smart underwear, a blood pressure shirt, and the first remote therapy knee brace that combines electric stimulation and heat therapy to help the wearer deal with acute and chronic knee pain. It seems the applications for this type of technology are endless and may end up in the near future being considered as reliable as the diagnostics one might undergo at a doctor’s office.

Par for the course

Most of the smart wearable textiles on the market are focused on physical performance—heart rate and such—whereas Nadi X is designed to help the wearer better his or her performance in a given discipline. In the case of Wearable X, yoga is the entry level product but stay tuned as the company explores new disciplines. The industry seems to be taking a similar path too, with different brands filling different niche audience’s needs and companies constantly broadening their offerings with every product.

One of the more advanced wearable products was launched earlier this year by a startup golf tech company called Guided Knowledge. Their GK Smart Suit is a base-layer garment that can measure and capture users’ biomechanical motion through speed, angle and direction. The motion data can be analyzed by coaches and players simultaneously via the GK App and can be viewed across devices and geographies—perfect for the pro working with a remote coach. Designed for elite athletes, the suit is designed to high-end specifications—1,000 frames per second—which is the fastest outside military- or NASA-grade application. “Every second, the suit is capturing 90,000 pieces of data,” according to Trine Hindklev, Chief Marketing Officer of Guided Knowledge.

“You might ask yourself—who needs that information about themselves? I don’t know that I’d want to know that much about myself, but for athletes who are working on trying to make just the smallest change, marginal shifts that will have tremendous gain on their overall performance, like a professional golfer, this type of data is invaluable to them. So we’re starting with an elite audience,” says Hindklev. “And we have been working with five “mega-watt” pros from the US and UK for testing what is effectively digitized coaching.”

In addition to the obvious coaching benefits, the product is able to allow for benchmarking. “Because we’re capturing so much data about their [the player’s] physical performance, we’re able to
assemble a digital swing signature. We can really break down the DNA of each person’s individual swing,” says Hindklev. “And for players who have been injured, finding it difficult to get that same swing back again post-recovery, having that baseline or benchmarked motion capture can be really helpful.”

Launched at the 66th PGA Merchandise Show in January, the GK Smart Suit won the Pinnacle Award—effectively the best in show—on the basis of the inventing process, including ideation, invention and commercialization. In March, Guided Knowledge won “Best Seed Funded Business” for its “Next Generation of Wearables” from the 2019 Yahoo! Sports Technology Awards Startups, and the company is planning to have its commercial pipeline up and running by April with product in the market by September 2019.

As with Wearable X, the “smart techstyle” approach from Guided Knowledge is applicable to sports beyond golf and the team there is already exploring what’s next. As these technologies are developed and become more affordable over time, we’re likely to see their proliferation in stages. Elite athletes and agencies—think NASA, Air Force, etc.—will likely be the early adopters because they have the funding and the practical need for such precise data. Following those elite customers, and after the technologies have been proven effective and lowered in cost, we’ll likely see amateur athletes and fitness enthusiasts begin to use these new wearable clothes in the same way they’ve adopted more traditional wearables like FitBit. We seem to be on the cusp of this change, and on the verge of a mass market debut. Brands who are able to develop new wearable products at an affordable price first will likely become leaders in the industry as new consumers will be looking for the brands who have been doing it the longest.

Thumbnail image courtesy of SUPA