People Make Clothes that Light Up and Flash—a Trend with No Lasting Value

BeBop Sensors is a leader in smart fabric sensor technologies. Based in Berkeley, California (US), BeBop Sensors last month launched a new RoboSkin line of skin-like coverings for tactile awareness for humanoid robots and prosthetics. RoboSkin fits all robotic body parts: limbs, fingers, feet, head, and torso, to make robots “feel” better. Founder Keith McMillen speaks about trends in the sector.

Long Story, Cut Short
  • A recent study on smart wearables said that most people feel the actionable information they get does not offset the inconvenience of the device.
  • BeBop fabric is made with water-based processes that have very low environmental impact.
  • RoboSkin uses fabric sensing material.
Image for representation purposes.
Smartening Up BeBop Sensors has made significant improvements to the performance of sensor fabric in the last four years, adding on a huge dynamic range. There are certain places where only the BeBop sensing fabric will work, such as for insoles and curved geometries. Mareefe / Pixabay

BeBop Sensors has been around for a while now. What has been the most dramatic change in the smart fabrics market that you have personally seen? Smart fabrics are not yet mainstream. Do you see things remaining that way for a while? What, according to you, can be the factor that will take smart fabrics into every day, mass usage?
We have made significant improvements to the performance of the sensor fabric in the last four years. More stability and a huge dynamic range. There are certain places where only our sensing fabric will work, such as for insoles and curved geometries.

These applications are meant to solve problems. So, what problems actually exist that can and need to be solved?  By far the big need is Digital Health.

We see a plethora of smart watches and sports bands. Fitness bands can be helpful to a healthy person trying to monitor exercise and healthy habits. But, more than half of people wearing fitness watches stop using them within a year: A recent commercial study on activity trackers or fitness wearables showed that 30% of consumers stop wearing their device after six months and half the people who ever owned a wearable stopped using it altogether (Endeavour partners 2014).

Reasons vary but most people feel the actionable information they are getting does not offset the inconvenience of the device.

We make an insole that delivers information for people who are trying to prevent accidents, strokes, diabetes, more. This wearable is for people who want to have more data about their well-being – more of a smoke alarm.  

The subject of smart fabrics or say smart textiles somehow remain in the tech realm, rather than in fashion. Do you agree with that contention?
I agree—I do not see much need or demand for active clothing. Again, what would you want to know from your clothes? For health monitoring it makes sense.

Broadly speaking, do you think that the mainstream fashion and the fash-tech segment have a communication problem? As in they don't interact so much with each other as they ideally should?
Not so much a communication problem, but a ‘problem’ problem. I haven't seen general public applications other than health and medical—and most of those are for insoles.

People have made clothes that light up and flash or display rough graphics. Just a trend with no lasting value.

How does sourcing work in the smart fabrics segment? Could you briefly outline that for a layperson, or maybe even for many in the broad textiles-apparel-fashion ecosystem?
We take a non-woven material and process it to become sensor fabric. Most sensors we make can be done with small amounts of fabric.

One thing that probably has not got much attention is about the environmental impact of smart fabrics? Have you done any LCA analysis of your own products? Talking of your own products, which one has gained the most acceptance so far? Why so?
Our fabric is all made with water-based processes that have very low environmental impact. We can even produce it in California which has demanding environmental constraints. Reliability is in the 10's of millions of 75 PSI strikes with no degradation. Most fabrics are actually used in musical instruments at KMI Music: https://www.keithmcmillen.com/artists/

What about the skin-like coverings? Are they also made from similar materials? Are we likely to see such applications in the mainstream textiles-apparel industry?
We have fabric sensors in daily use for over 10 years. The reliability has been engineered into the design. The RoboSkin uses the same fabric sensing material. I really do not see much requirement for apparel other than for digital health.

I do not see much need or demand for active clothing. Again, what would you want to know from your clothes? For health monitoring it makes sense.

Keith McMillen
Keith McMillen / Founder & CTO / BeBop Sensors
 
 
  • Dated posted: July 18, 2022
  • Last modified: August 1, 2022