Ever wonder what your skinny jeans would say if they could talk? Sabine Seymour is working on a soft sensor system that will not only provide the answer to that question, but may also empower those hip-huggers to seamlessly adjust to changes in your body temperature, ambient light and social milieu.
Seymour calls herself a conceptual researcher and entrepreneur. Others call her one of the world's leading authorities on fashionable technology. As founder of Moondial, a consulting company specializing in the integration of technology and fabrics, she has spent nearly 20 years working with tech companies like Intel, Motorola and Johnson Controls to raise the IQ's of objects ranging from clothes to car seats.
She recently launched Moonlab, an OEM – auto industry parlance for "original equipment manufacturer" – that will produce SoftSpot, a system of fabric-printed sensors designed to integrate imperceptibly with clothing and monitor both biometric and environmental factors such as air quality and UV levels via Bluetooth.
The system is twofold: the first part is a sensor system that the garment manufacturer puts into the garment and the second part consists of electronic hardware.
"Because SoftSpot is a component, we're talking about supply chain here, so it is very important to think about the supply chain for a clothing brand and the supply chain for the electronics," says Seymour, who is Austrian but speaks with a slight Western twang that brings actor Christoph Waltz (also Austrian) to mind. In addition to being an acknowledged expert and insider in software, electronics, fashion and textile worlds, she's also a sports adventurer (snowboarding, surfing) who seems up to the challenge of wrangling the players in the diverse and generally staid industries necessary to produce and mass market a device that lies somewhere between breakthrough garment and garment industry breakthrough.
"My background fortunately allows me to understand exactly who has expertise in sensor integration into a fabric, the washability characteristics, the white label manufacturers who need to retool in order to be able to manufacture (a SoftSpot-enabled garment)," Seymour says from New Inc., The New Museum (NYC) incubator space where the multinational startup is currently headquartered. "There are lots of different layers that might be complicated for an outsider to look at ... I don't go crazy."
Seymour, who holds a Ph.D. in social and economic sciences, and her team began experimenting with various methods of printing circuits on textiles using conductive inks 18 months ago and worked up a SoftSpot prototype last year. Fast-forward to today: experience design, user interface and marketing are underway in New York while product design is happening in Vienna. Seymour explains the end product to newbies as a high-tech analogue to the zipper.
"You use a zipper to zip up your pants, you use a zipper to zip up a vent. It doesn't really matter," she says. "You just tell me what you need the SoftSpot for and I'll tell you which one to get."
Such a cog-and-sprocket mindset makes sense for a technical device but seems at odds with the aesthetic particularities of the fashion world. In the classic example, Google's knack for generating major tech trends did nothing for Google Glass. As director of the Fashionable Technology Lab at Parsons The New School for Design in New York, where she is assistant professor of fashionable technology, and author of several books on wearable technology, Seymour knows this but seems intent on bridging the gap between the technology and fashion worlds to create garments that will integrate the human body with the "Internet of things."
"I've been doing this for almost two decades and now the time is absolutely here," says Seymour. "We have the technologies. We have the craze around wearables.... We have now an absolute ability to correlate all the data that we might get and to make sense of it.... We wear garments close to our bodies and wear them everyday. It makes sense that we use them to track biometrics."
Beyond the already huge market in sportswear and the sleeping giant of health-care garments, Seymour sees a ready market for the SoftSpot system in workwear.
"Whether it's a construction site or an oil rig, there is so much sensor information that is relevant to the health of the person and the employer," she says. "You basically have a human sensor running around on a construction site understanding that the wind pattern for this skyscraper is like this right now so lets put these people on (the other) side."
As one of the fashion industry's most vocal proponents of "Functional Aesthetics," wearable tech that's both utilitarian and beautiful, Seymour sees function as more than just a heart-rate monitor or life saver. She also recognizes the role of clothing in psychological and social functions.
"Oh my God!," she says. "Today it's humid in New York. Wouldn't it be great to have a system (that) understands the outside temperature, my ideal personal temperature, the humidity level and the fabric changes automatically?"
Yep, that would be cool.
The SoftSpot system will debut next September at New York Fashion Week 2016.