At this year's International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, "smart" objects were everywhere. Exhibitors devoted vast displays to smartwatches, refrigerators, slow cookers, door locks, planters, and more--all connected to the Web and ready to monitor your personal habits.
And if you couldn't find exactly what you were looking for, well, not to fear: Other companies, such as Sen.se, specialized in peddling the sensors used in those products, so you could conceivably turn anything into a smart object. (Are your kids brushing their teeth properly? Affix a sensor and you'll soon find out.)
The main goal behind all of this technology is twofold: to give you more information about yourself while at the same time simplifying your life. But there's a fundamental tension there. If a consumer needs to remember to start measuring her own habits--to strap on that watch or stick on that sensor--has the equipment really simplified life?
A small French startup, Cityzen Sciences, argues that at least in the category of wearable fitness tech, things need to get a whole lot simpler. CEO and president Jean-Luc Errant reasoned that when people leave the house, they always brings three things with them: their keys, their smartphone, and the clothes on their back. But if you're like Errant, you often forget the keys or the phone or both. You never, however, forget to get dressed. That's when he realized smart fabric might be worth investigating.
At the startup-only showroom at CES, Errant brought a prototype sleeveless exercise top embedded with a heart rate monitor, GPS, accelerometer, and altimeter. Special thread carries that data to a small, thin "gateway" on the back of the shirt. If you have your mobile device near you, the shirt will wirelessly sync with it in real time. If not, the gateway stores all of your data until you return home.
Thus far, smart fabrics have faced a couple of big challenges. First, the sensors need to be thin and flexible enough that the fabric is comfortable to wear. And second, clothing (Unlike, say, a bracelet like the Fitbit) must be washed, so the technology needs to be able to withstand the constant wear and tear of the laundry machine. Errant says Cityzen has solved both problems. I didn't try on the shirt, but I felt it and the sensors are, indeed, extremely thin.
One decision Cityzen has made--and it's a smart one if you ask me--is not to try to be a consumer apparel company that competes head-to-head with the big fitness brands. "We sell the technology and the R&D," says Antoine Ormieres, the company's marketing project manager. So far, a French cycling company has signed on and will begin selling a smart shirt and cycling pants in the second half of 2014. (Ormieres said he didn't know the retail price of the clothing.)
I do have at least one practical concern about smart fabric: unlike existing fitness device technology where you buy one bracelet and presumably don't buy another one until you need to replace it, a serious athlete likely would need more than just one smart shirt, no matter how great the fabric performs in the washer. That sounds like it could get pricey. Ormieres pointed out that if you do need to replace a shirt, you'll be able to do so without buying a new gateway.
Errant sees possibilities far beyond the fitness world, though. Smart textiles, he says, could find their way into your car, your nursery, and a host of other applications.
For now, however, the company has other milestones to pursue. Letting the world know Cityzen exists at CES? Check. Next up: establishing an office in Silicon Valley in June.