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Thursday, June 4, 2015

Market Magic: Smart Jeans Can Save Your Life

The "Internet of things" will revolutionize the real world the way it did the digital realm


Today’s world of ubiquitous mobile applications, seamless multiplatform integration, and constant social feedback would be hard to imagine a decade ago, when your new cell phone’s colored screen and grainy camera capabilities were sure to impress and perhaps begrudge your friends.

Remember that old Nokia 3310 and the hours of Snake you enjoyed? Compared to your latest glittering iPhone, it might as well now literally be used in building construction.

In ten more years, you’ll probably feel the same way about your jeans.

Last week, Google revealed Project Jacquard, an exciting new initiative to literally weave the Internet into the very fabric of our clothes. Cutting-edge techies are teaming with the forward-looking fashion designers at Levi Strauss to lace tiny conductive fibers that can sense pressure and temperature, called Jacquard yarn, within our favorite denim garments and finally bring them into the 21st Century.

A small circuit board — no doubt discretely hidden in a button or garment lining by the clever threadsmiths at Levi Straus — will connect and process tactile inputs from the Jacquard yarn woven throughout the garment. Voilá! Your jeans are now “smartjeans,” allowing you to interact with your phone and the Internet with a mere touch of the fabric.

The range of applications are numerous and subtle.

Take health monitoring, a market currently served by somewhat clunky armband devices. “Tactile computing” can be similarly used to monitor the wearer’s health vitals, like her heart rate, blood pressure, sleep schedule, and even her mood — all without the added hassle of remembering to put on that easy-to-lose FitBit.

We could easily track our day-to-day health, identifying and changing the behaviors that are revealed to have undermined our wellness. If a wearer suffers a heart attack, the nearest hospital and his closest relatives could be immediately alerted. Health insurance premiums could be more precisely calibrated to reflect the underlying risk of each individual’s lifestyle profile.

Such networked clothing could bring significant cost savings indeed, with researchers at McKinsey estimating that wearables could generate $1.1 trillion to $2.5 trillion in economic value by the year 2025.

Or consider the possibilities presented when wearable technologies begin interacting with other networked technologies.

My colleague Adam Thierer has written extensively on the “Internet of Things,” an ecosystem of physical objects — vehicles, appliances, thermostats, lights, utilities, and consumer devices — that are embedded with microchips, sensors, and wireless communication capabilities to connect and autonomously interact with each other. These devices can be pre-programmed to communicate and dynamically adjust based on the feedback provided by other devices — all without requiring the user to lift a finger.

Life is more soothing when driven by data.

In the not-too-distant future, your phone’s daily schedule will sync with your driverless car, picking you up from the office at the ideal time to minimize rush hour headaches.

Your health tracker, sensing elevated stress and low sugar levels, triggers your home devices to softly play your favorite music, dim the lights, and comfortably cool your surroundings.

Your oven is already heated by the time you get home, after consulting with your refrigerator about the optimal mix of self-ordered contents and designing a recipe for one of your favorite meals, of course.

“Smart” clothes can be integrated into this system to automate more tedious tasks and free up more of our time for the things that matter to us.

Sound far-fetched?

Check out Disney World, where wearable technologies are already making the Magic Kingdom a little more magic. A single unobtrusive rubber bracelet called the “MagicBand” wirelessly coordinates park access, reservations, payments, “FastPass” line-hopping privileges, meals, and even luggage transfer as if divined by a fairy godmother’s enchanted wand.

Little girls dressed as princesses squeal in delight as they are greeted by name when they arrive for the tea in Cinderella’s castle. Anonymized guest tracking reveals that crowds are swelling in Tomorrowland; a Frozen-themed parade is then queued to decongest the horde.

Fathers no longer need to fear crest-fallen faces if the meet-and-greet line for Mickey Mouse precludes some quality time with his children; with the MagicBand, families can securely reserve such priorities, which lessens stress and leaves more time to enjoy the new memories they are sharing.

As Wired explains, “The MagicBands, the thousands of sensors they talk to, and the 100 systems linked together to create MyMagicPlus turns the park into a giant computer.” But your little brother doesn’t see any of that: He just revels as he high-fives Buzz Lightyear.

While holographic fingernails excite and grab headlines, wearable technologies like Project Jacquard will secure true success when the improvements they bring to our lives are as unremarkable as instant navigation on our smartphones.

This marginal mundanity of magic is a testament to the market’s drive to make our lives the most comfortable as possible while requiring from us the least possible exertion. Data-driven technologies allow us to drill down to granular market and non-market tastes alike, harnessing algorithms and data monitoring as a kind of emulated price signal that makes the best use of our own consumer information.

Just as networked technologies amplify the positive effects of markets, they can agitate skeptics’ concerns.

As more decisions are automated away from human judgment into the background of data coordination, some will worry that technology designers hold an alarming degree of subtle control over their daily lives.

But these arguments are already made today about online data tracking; few who call for regulation actually read the data policies to which they agreed or cease using the technologies over which they agonize.

The same arguments made for markets today can be modified for the Internet of Things tomorrow: Where these technologies introduce vulnerabilities to security (in the case of hacking) or consumer safety, another market opportunity to add value presents itself.

Should consumers keep buying smart jeans, it will be a strong indicator that the market values data-driven fashion more than it fears Skynet-through-style. And one day, we’ll look back and wonder how we ever got on without it. 


  • Andrea Castillo is the program manager of the Technology Policy Program for the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and is pursuing a PhD in economics at George Mason University.