Yoga Pants That Correct Your Form and the Future of Haptic Fashion

Wearable tech might get where it wants to go through the science of touch

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I am a bad yogi. My inability to downward dog stems from a couple of separate factors: a lifelong disdain of stretching combined with weekly soccer games and squash matches played on slowly aging limbs and ligaments. If I'm being honest, there's also a certain intimidation or fear factor in my expected failure. As someone who defines himself at least in part by mostly succeeding in various athletic endeavors, the idea of struggling through a beginner yoga class brings the opposite of tranquility.


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What I need is a teacher (and not the type of teacher who told me during one of the few classes I've taken that my hamstrings were tight because I was squeezed in the birth canal).

What I need is a pair of Nadi X tights.

The pants, developed by Australian company Wearable Experiments, appear to be a typical sleek, skin-tight outfit, like something you'd see in every yoga studio in the world. But they have one key difference: tiny electronic motors are woven between the nylon layers near the hip, knee, and ankle. These actuators sense the angle of the wearer's body and, by communicating with a downloadable app, vibrate when the person is out of alignment while performing a specific pose. If my leg in Warrior 2 isn't parallel to the ground, I'll feel a vibration on my knee and hip until my positioning is correct. The app allows users to input their ability level (low!), ensuring they can improve slowly and decreasing the risk of injury. Billie Whitehouse, the co-founder and CEO Wearable Experiments, says that the tights have been her company's most successful offering so far.

The Nadi is far from alone when it comes to articles of clothing that communicate with their wearers through the sense of touch. This field — known as haptics from the Greek word "haptikos," which means able to touch or grasp — is developing rapidly, with everyone from Google and Levi Strauss to budget airline EasyJet releasing haptic-enabled clothing. And the list will only grow longer as the motors become smaller and cheaper, and consumers grow more accustomed to receiving information from what they are wearing. In the next decade, haptics could change everything from what we wear to how we shop.

Nadi X, in four poses. Photo: Wearable Experiments

Most people first experienced haptic technology in video games, with early offerings such as Sega's 1976 motorbike game Moto-Cross or Nintendo 64's Rumble Pak. These were simple devices with obvious applications. Crash your virtual bike or get hit by a red turtle shell in Mario Kart, and your joystick or controller would vibrate accordingly. While fun, this was hardly revolutionary, especially considering the power of touch. It's one of our strongest senses, and humans develop the sense of touch before all others. A 2013 study found that our fingers can sense ridges that are just nanometers high. "This means that, if your finger was the size of the Earth, you could feel the difference between houses from cars," Mark Rutland, a professor of Surface Chemistry at Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden and one of the study's lead scientists, said.

In addition to being one of our most refined senses, touch is the most intimate. It can grab your attention in a private way that visual and audio cues can't. "Think about the value of touch when you are with your significant other. Just them touching you on the arm or bumping their elbow," Chris Ullrich, the vice president of UX at haptic-focused research company Immersion, says. "These are what we call positive valence. They create a sense of well-being. There's some serotonin that is released in your brain to make you feel at ease."

In addition to being one of our most refined senses, touch is the most intimate. It can grab your attention in a private way that visual and audio cues can't.

Given this potential for intimacy, the appeal of haptic clothing becomes obvious. Wearable Experiments is one of the company's on the forefront, with a variety of products in addition to Nadi. The idea behind the Foxtel Alert Shirt was to let wearers feel what their favorite Australian Rules football players felt during the game. If a player’s heart rate increased during a particularly intense moment, actuators in the Foxtel shirt would mimic the pounded on the wearer’s chest. Fundawear, meanwhile, was designed in collaboration with Durex to send "real touch from one smartphone to another and from there to mini sensors inside the Fundawear garments, so couples can tease, tickle and tantalize – even when they are apart." The HugShirt provides a more PG application with the wearer feeling the squeeze of a hug sent by someone on the other side of the planet (or in the next room). EasyJet created The Barcelona Street Project, a pair of shoes that link with Google Maps to vibrate when the wearer walks in the wrong direction. Artefact has a pilates shirt that's similar in idea and execution to the Nadi tights.

 

Currently, these are not mainstream articles of clothing, more one-off niche products than anything. In the near future, however, haptic clothing could be big business. Google thinks so, with its Advanced Technology and Projects division partnering with Levi on Project Jacquard. The collaboration previously produced fabric that allowed a user to control his phone by touching his pants. In the spring of 2017, Google and Levi's plan to release the Levi's Commuter Trucker Jacket, which allows the wearer to touch the smart collar on the sleeve of his jacket and interact with phone apps including Spotify, Google Maps, and Strava.

For companies in the haptic space — a place that's been overlooked if not completely ignored by the general public — an internet giant like Google jumping into the world is an exciting, legitimacy-establishing development. Project Jacquard "promises to let wearers keep their technology hidden away while still allowing for natural interactions, leading the way for technology to become truly invisible, literally woven into the fabric of our everyday lives, rather than separating us from the world around us," Jon Mann, the design director of UX at design firm Artefact, says.

The Football Fan Shirt. Photo: Wearable Experiments

The Football Fan Shirt. Photo: Wearable Experiments

Those are the words of a man fully invested in the future viability of haptics (as he should be, since that's how he makes his living), but they represent the future rather than the present. Today’s offerings trend a bit closer to gimmicks than viable commercial offerings. While Wearable Experiments' Whitehouse argues that attributing the word "gimmicky" to the products her company and others produce "is the narrow-mindedness of a marketing person," Amy Webb, the founder of the Future Today Institute, disagrees. "Levi's integration is a cool coat. For guys. There's no product offering there or research for women," she says. "As long as a lot of the technology is made for single-sex, it's going to fall into the category of gimmick. How can it not?"

 

And she's not wrong. The vast majority — if not all — of the haptic clothing today is gimmicky. That doesn't, however, mean that will continue to be the case. "The place I can see haptics having a much bigger impact over the longer term is in personalized wearables, personalized clothing, personalized shoes, and personalized glasses," Webb says.

The vast majority — if not all — of the haptic clothing today is gimmicky. That doesn't, however, mean that will continue to be the case.

Consider ordering shoes on Zappos. Today, the company brute forces customization by offering free shipping. So you buy 10 pairs of shoes, try them on, and return the eight or nine pairs that don't fit. But what if Zappos could send you a shoe form with haptic sensors on the inside? These sensors would read the exact size of your foot and tell you which pairs would fit best. Now, take this scenario a step further. What if Zappos could send you a form, identify your specific measurements, and then 3-D print a pair specifically for you. Obviously, this wouldn't solve the issue of fashion, but it's also possible that you'd sacrifice a bit of fashion because the fit would be so perfect.

And what about pants? In the recent past, Levi's briefly installed 3-D scanners in a few stores. The idea was to scan a shopper's body to determine the best fitting jeans. But 3-D scanners only measure outlines and volume; they don't show how clothes fit, where they touch when the wearer bends over, or many other factors. In short, while a 3-D scanner can show the best fit, it can't ensure the pants will be comfortable. (The idea of going into a store and getting 3-D scanned is also a little bit creepy.) A haptic interface that reported how the pants hung, how they fell during different movements, and how a person wore them could be a much more effective selling point, increasing satisfaction and limiting costly returns.

"The first company to really crack that is going to make so much money," Webb says.

Another version of the future involves a different part of online shopping. It's possible, even likely, that at some point in the next decade you'll be able to reach out to your computer screen and feel the texture of a shirt you are considering buying. Immersion's Chris Ullrich says the company is exploring areas including Electrostatic Friction and Deformation, technologies that could be used to create a computer interface that you could feel. In the lab, they have a screen that can feel like the scales of a fish or the quills of a porcupine. (Porcupine wouldn't be my first-choice animal to emulate, but whatever.) This technology is currently too expensive to implement at any scale and there are questions about how useful it would be — Webb argues persuasively that the density of a fabric, which you wouldn't be able to discern on a monitor, is more important than how soft it is — but it's not difficult to see how inventive companies could use haptic monitors to sell products.

The Football Fan Shirt. Photo: Wearable Experiments

The coming Virtual Reality revolution presents another opportunity for haptic shopping and clothing design. Rather than the mechanical haptics used by most devices today, VR devices will likely rely on other methods. Steve Cliffe, the CEO at Ultrahaptics, says his company can produce different shapes using ultrasound to project sensations through the air. While this process remains in its infancy, so does VR. "Once VR becomes mainstream," Ullrich says, "haptics would provide a real feel for the environment."

 

There are, of course, potential problems with haptic clothing and wearables. On the development level, Suvranu De, a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, warns that improvement of actuators is not as reliable as Moore's Law, the principle that continues to drive increases in computing power. In his eyes, haptic tech hasn't kept up with wearable vision like Oculus Rift, and there's no guarantee it will.

All of this haptic technology is cool, until — and it will happen — somebody hacks into the database where all this information is stored.

Still, Whitehouse says the motors get better and smaller, and the cost drops every three to six months. Improvement is happening, and with companies like Google spending millions, it could speed up.

As with so many technology-focused devices, privacy concerns need to be considered. Amy Webb thinks consumers would overlook the privacy issues at first, seduced by the possibilities and ease, only to then realize how much very specific information they've given up about themselves. "All of this haptic technology is cool, until — and it will happen — somebody hacks into the database where all this information is stored, or the tech bubble bursts and some of companies are being broken up and sold for parts and one of the parts is a database with your information in it," she says.

Perhaps the biggest issue is the sheer amount of feedback we'd potentially receive. Haptics present opportunity because the human sense of touch is so refined and remarkable. But how much buzzing can one body take? Your watch, your shirt, your pants, your shoes... eventually, your brain will grow confused or simply start ignoring the input.

Technology is an enabler, but we must first find the meaningful problems to solve and then use the appropriate technologies to seamlessly stitch them together.

"While I am excited about the inclusion of haptics in the technology that surrounds our everyday lives, I fear the numbing of our senses that could come from the careless overuse of haptics in everything we take with us," Jon Mann of Artefact says. "Our ability to differentiate one cue from another as we receive a gentle tickle on our wrists, in our pockets, on the back of our necks. The well intentioned behavioral nudges will be drowned out by a flood of tweet updates and Instagram likes gently whispered by your favorite hoodie."

He continues: "Technology is an enabler, but we must first find the meaningful problems to solve and then use the appropriate technologies to seamlessly stitch them together."

The future of haptic clothing is fast arriving. With smart, thoughtful design, the technology can provide useful information in new and unseen ways. In the meantime, however, we’ll settle for improving at some of these damn yoga poses.