Smart fabric will make wearable tech truly wearable. Here’s how …

smart thread wearable tech nextiles

There’s a dirty little secret of most wearable tech, and the dirty little secret is … it’s not actually wearable. It’s strappable, it’s mountable.

It’s not actually something that you wear in any traditional meaning of that word. At least, not like clothing, which moves, bends, and twists with your body as you walk, run, sit, play sports, and chill on the sofa. So most “wearable tech” is tech all right … but not really wearable.

One startup in New York, however, is trying to change that.

Imagine smart thread woven right into all of your clothing: no straps, no attachments, just clothing and data. In other words … truly wearable tech. To chat more and learn more, in this episode of TechFirst with John Koetsier I’m talking to the CEO and founder of Nextiles, George Sun.

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Full transcript: making wearable tech truly wearable with smart thread

(This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

John Koetsier: There’s a dirty little secret of most wearable tech, and the dirty little secret is … it’s not actually wearable. It’s strappable, it’s mountable, it’s not actually something that you wear in any traditional meaning of that word.

One startup, Nextiles, is trying to change that. Imagine smart thread woven right into all of your clothing. No straps, no attachments, just clothing and data. To chat more and learn more, I’m talking to the CEO and founder, George Sun. George, welcome!

George sun nextiles wearable tech

George Sun, CEO of Nextiles, and a wearable tech innovator

George Sun: Hi. Nice to meet you, John. 

John Koetsier: Hey, it is great to have you here. Thank you for taking the time. You’ve said, ‘If it can be sewn, it can be smart.’ Tell me about that. 

George Sun: Yeah, this actually really boils down to the fundamental principles of how you make a circuit; how you make anything connected; how you make anything communicate data from one end to the next, and that’s with just basically connecting from point A to point B.

Today we do that with circuit boards. If you open up your phone or any kind of electronics, you see all these highways of electronics touching each other.

And what we’re trying to do is take that principle of getting things communicated with one another, but doing that in clothing. So like you have a phone that can do wifi, acceleration, it can connect to the GPS. We want to do that same principle through threads alone.

And so when we say, ‘Hey, it could be sewn, it could be smart,’ we’re literally trying to sew the same kind of highway of data streams that you can normally find in a computer chip, but do that in clothing. And we’ve found — and we have patented — both the materials, both the manufacturing method and the devices that actually make these sensors.

John Koetsier: Well, it’s really interesting, because if you look at traditional circuit boards from, sheesh, I don’t know, 20 years ago, you can see the circuits, right? People could even edit them with a soldering iron or something like that. 

George Sun: Yeah. 

nextiles knee brace wearable tech

John Koetsier: That’s no longer anywhere near the case, right. I mean, everything is microscopic, nanoscopic — if that’s even a word — so I’m assuming what you’re doing is actually probably pretty visible because we can see threads, right? 

George Sun: Yeah, absolutely. And this is where it could be a good or a bad thing to make an analogy or comparison to the semiconductor world, but when Moore’s Law really kicked off formally in the sixties, when we built transistors, like transistors were the size of your everyday computer. But right now, like with Moore’s Law, we have trillions of them in the size of a fingertip. And so, yes, you’re absolutely right.

The threads that we’re sewing, they’re not even on the micron scale. They’re about, you know, they’re threads; you can see them.

But we’re just at that cusp of Moore’s Law and at Nextiles one of our theses is to really reinvigorate the innovation in sewing technology because that has really lagged behind as a platform itself, right? We’ve only been using clothing just for clothing’s sake, but we do see that entire real estate on the body to be advanced.

But the reason why that comparison may not be good is that these highways that we’re making with these threads on the clothing is actually aesthetically pleasing. We always joke around in the company that it looks like Iron Man, like, right now you can see all the signals kind of like veins kind of powering that suit. So if you do want it, we can actually do customized garments that do have these highways exposed. But there are actually quite unique methodologies where we do cover it, we do hide it, so it doesn’t look too Frankenstein if that’s what people are thinking about. 

John Koetsier: Yeah. How medieval, hey, clothing that just protects you from cold or damp or something like that?

So talk about what kind of sensors you’ve been able to sew into clothing or to create in, within clothing …

George Sun: Yeah, absolutely. We call this a beachhead — the first, I would say, sensor technology beachhead — with the threads we’re using, with the fabric that we’re using.

We call them mechanical sensors, and it’s because these threads really lend themselves to mechanical deformation. Right now, if you twist a circuit board you’re probably going to snap it, but when we sew these things into your fabric, we really want to leverage how flexible they are so that when you stretch the fabric, when you bend the fabric, when you apply pressure on the fabric, we can actually sense electrical changes.

So, not to go too much in the deep end on physics — hopefully it doesn’t get anyone PTSD in their high school days — but, you know, when you power a device, you’re putting in some voltage, you’re putting a little bit of current, but because you’re going to stretch the fabric, because you’re going to bend it or twist it in a way that’s not away from its normal state, that signal changes; it deforms. It either increases or decreases, and that’s what we capture.

So we’re really not capturing like, hey, 5 or 24 or 36; we’re couching percentages. How much did your fabric change? And we map that back to, oh yeah, it changed because you bent your arm 45 degrees; it changed because your torso pivoted by four radians — I don’t know, whatever kind of numbers you can make up.

But that’s what we’re mapping and we do have our sights on other types of sensing modalities, but maybe we can touch on that later in the talk. 

nextiles arm sleeve wearable tech

John Koetsier: That is really, really interesting, I mean, because you’ve basically got analog flowing into digital and digital flowing into analog in some really, real sense. You’ve got an analog thing that’s in my knee or my elbow or my wrist, whatever it might be that is measuring change, and you’re getting digital measurements out of that that are very precise, right? I mean, some percentage and you can probably go to multiple decimal places on that.

How does that data get out? Where does it go? Do you have some central processor? I mean, I’ve talked to people in the IoT world and they’ve been able to design a Bluetooth chip that lives on like a sticker, and I’m talking super thin. Is that what you’re doing? Are you connecting to a smartphone? 

George Sun: Yeah, that’s exactly it. I would say the biggest bottleneck that we’re facing is actually the electronics themselves. So we have, you can imagine this highway of threads that are going up and down, you know, beneath between different layers of fabric, but they all terminate in an area that we consolidate.

So we have all these threads, we consolidate them to maybe an area of the body that’s not usually encountered, and then we actually do stick that sticker, you would say, we actually do incorporate a small battery, a small Bluetooth device. We’re leveraging Bluetooth 5, so battery life is about 24 hours or more.

And with that Bluetooth device, we do connect with apps. That does dive deeper into our business model of how we want to relay that data. We make our own apps, we make SDKs, we make APIs. But that transformation is really trying to collect all those threads in an area that you don’t really normally see, because right now — you did talk about strappables, right — all of that technology is localized on that wrist, right?

But for us, we have the freedom and the liberty to kind of move that module wherever we want. So we can actually put a sensor on the wrist but then have that battery on Bluetooth, maybe on the base of the arm, or on the back of the neck, or somewhere far off. But to extra confirm what you just said, yes, we do use Bluetooth. We do use apps and that’s how the data is coming to the consumer. 

smart thread wearable tech nextiles

An example of smart thread making truly wearable tech possible …

John Koetsier: Right. Super interesting. I interviewed Wiliot, which makes Bluetooth basically in — prints Bluetooth chips. And one of them actually harvests ambient radio frequency energy; doesn’t have a battery, doesn’t live on a battery. I can imagine something like that is in your future, or maybe even something that is just harvesting ambient energy from heat, even from the body or movement. I’m sure you’ve looked at that stuff as well. Where is this being used? 

George Sun: Yeah, I would say maybe to touch on your previous comment on the energy harvesting, and not to show all of my cards, but we are looking into piezoelectric materials. And actually that’s the materials that we make at Nextiles are these, you know, piezoelectric, piezoresistive materials.

And you know what that is, is I don’t know where people would normally see it, but I think it’s intuitive that every time you crunch your leg or you do a step, you’re going to make a little bolt of electricity and that I can get stored. And so that’s in our horizon that the more you move your body, the more you can collect that ambient movement energy, the kinetics back to powering that battery.

But to answer the main question of where this is used, it’s pretty much used in performance sports. I’m putting that adjective there because we’re really targeting athletes at the kind of —the higher level, the ones who actually do want to see the data, the ones who actually can discern and understand the data. And the reason why we’re doing this is also selfishly for us, is because we’re creating so much data that we don’t even know how to analyze. I don’t mean to degrade myself, but I’m no professional baseball player, right? I’m no professional football player. So even though I’m the one getting the data, I should not be the one to tell you. Yeah, that’s the best way to throw a 99 mile per hour ball. Like I should not be giving that feedback to you.

So we’ve been working with people from the MLB. We’ve been working with people from the NFL, that working with these athletes, they’re educating us to understand what do you want from the data? And we can go back, mine that data, or even augment our sensors to actually better capture those data.

And so, again, to loop this around to answer your question, we’ve been working hip to hip with professional athletes.

John Koetsier: I love that. I love that a lot. Now, I’m Canadian from Vancouver, Canada, so I’m a hockey player. So, play a lot of hockey, taken a lot of hits, broken a lot of bones, got some cuts and stuff like that … but can you imagine knowing, as a medical professional, here’s exactly how far that limb was torqued out of normal or something like that? That’d be super interesting to know, in real time perhaps, to know hey, it’s dangerous for that athlete to continue or maybe should pull from the game.

Or even a baseball player, you know, it’s hard to tell sometimes like a swing that’s working or not working … well, your average is down a little bit over the last 10 days, we’ve been able to identify that your angle is just down by about two degrees. I mean, something that you would never see visually, maybe an AI looking at the data could or something like that, but that is super interesting. 

George Sun: Yeah, and my comment on that is that it’s also trying to be humble about the data that we’re getting, is that we aren’t looking for that silver bullet solution as in like, yeah, that number is the perfect indicator for injury prevention. For us, we’re more on the law of averages of if it can study over time, if you can wear the device over time, you know, what is that trend in your kind of performance portfolio.

Because it may happen that today you’re healthy, but the next two weeks, two months, two years, we see some degradation.

And so, to get that kind of precision and this pattern matching, because, again, we’re really not telling you like, ‘Oh, aim for this number, that’s the golden number.’ We’re kind of telling you, ‘Okay, this is the profile that you want to aim for, right?’ You don’t want to over commit on squats or pushups or throws and so on. And so I’m just agreeing to what you said, that if we could capture this data over time with enough athletes, and that’s the thing that we’re doing right now, finding that two degree angle difference and correlating that to an eventual injury or likelihood of injury — that’s something we really want to pursue. 

John Koetsier: Wow. Wow. I can imagine future trades, ‘We want to see the data on the past five years on power and speed. Is this athlete aging or aging well?’ Very interesting.

George Sun: Yeah. And maybe to add in on that too. I know before I was trying to explain the types of sensors we’re making, these mechanical sensors — things like forces, pressure, torque — that actually does segue really nicely to what you just alluded to. It does lend itself easily to these higher order calculations, things like angular velocity, things like strain, things like stress, and even things like fatigue, right?

The more force you add, I’m assuming  that force is expending some calories and you’ll get tired after a while. And, I can try to predict a future question of why this is different is that, you know, trying to use accelerometers that’s a little bit indirect, right? Movement can come from anything. You can be on a bike and it’s moving. You can be spinning around and that’s moving.

But to really measure forces — forces that come from the body — now that’s really, really different and that’s what we’re trying to garner and collect. Forces are definitely more intuitive to understand than telling someone you’re moving at 20 meters per second squared, right? So who knows. 

John Koetsier: Wow, that’s quite some acceleration there, I would like to do that. [laughter] What kind of price are we looking at here? I mean, one of the good things about most wearable tech or … let’s say, strappables —and I’ll hold up my Apple Watch here — is that I buy one of them and I wear it with every outfit. If I have sensors in my clothing, then I need them to be in all my clothing items. Now, maybe you’re getting around that by being in like an Under Armour type of thing or something like that, but what’s the long term vision there?

George Sun: Yeah. So, right now we are aiming for that Under Armour kind of platform where it’s a either compression garment or a garment you could wear underneath and still have the freedom to wear the clothing you would like. So we do this with athletes so that they know how to change their jerseys. It’s actually not recognizable; they don’t have to combat their branding per se. So I don’t think that’s a huge issue.

We are machine washable, so if you do want to wear it for one game and then wash it and then wear it for the next one, totally available.

But the price point right now, since we are pre-launch — it’s actually launching right now with these athletes, but not to the consumer base — I can tell you right now, it’s not as expensive as an Apple Watch, but it probably is a little bit more expensive than your, I guess, your Gap or your Uniqlo t-shirt. So it’s kind of in that spectrum.

So I do see in the next year, year and a half, that this can be a consumer product where someone says, ‘Hey, I can either buy a regular shirt or a Nextiles shirt’ and that price point won’t shock them. But right now we’re kind of trying to really focus on the athletic space of, yes, it’s a rash guard, or yes, it’s a compression shirt; go wear it with your other uniform and then go from there. So I don’t mean to dance around that bush, but it definitely is affordable for the athletes we’re working with. For the consumer, you may have to wait until 2022, which is coming up soon, or in the next coming year.

John Koetsier: Mm-hmm. I was going to ask as well, I mean, obviously you’re into wearable tech. What wearable tech do you personally use? 

George Sun: Yeah, I actually use an Apple Watch. They’re not paying me to say that, but I’ve used it in the beginning and this is just a personal story, I have no agenda for what I’m saying right now. I’ve tried using the pedometer, the exercise routine, the calorie counts, but it eventually became somewhat of a … kind of a nuisance. I know some people create a habit around it, but I think for me, for it to remind me that I need to walk 10 more steps or I need to stand up for two more hours, just given my routine it was quite difficult to do. So, it was a little bit too involved.

So I just use it as like a kind of an email sniffer or just checking the time.

I think ideally for me would be like if I were to have a wearable and let’s say a Nextiles wearable, it would be for a very surgical  application. It will be because I want to train for a marathon and that’s why I want to buy XYZ garment, right? You know, not to alienate anyone, but I think right now it’s very difficult to make a lifestyle wearable because everyone has different lifestyles. I did hundreds of interviews with consumers and some people want it for when they’re sleeping. Some people want to wear it when they’re walking, or some people want to do it when they’re walking their dog.

But you know, for us, we’re trying to be very diligent because the data matters, right? The data really matters and I think to do that, you have to fold in this precision of what are you trying to look for? For what activity? Is it a marathon? Is it a pitch? Is it a quarterback throw? Is it a tackle? And then from there kind of be diligent of keeping track of it.

So, I don’t know if that answered the question, but that’s kind of what my mind space is.

John Koetsier: It does, and it is interesting because a lot of people use wearables as like a general activity measurement thing, as a general health aid. And that’s how I use it, right? Am I getting enough exercise? Am I moving enough? Yeah, I’ll get up every 50 minutes or so and run a little bit around my office here so I have my ‘stand hour’ in, right?

But if you’re going to work on pure performance, then that’s not … that’s too general, that’s too vague, it’s not specific. Now I totally see what you’re getting on there. Let’s look out then, here’s the crystal ball and you look at Nextiles three, four years down the path, maybe five years down the path … what do you see? What’s available? What’s possible? 

George Sun: Yeah, that’s a really good question, and I think with the support of my team and talking with my team both on a business, philosophical, and technological level, I think we’re really seeing ourselves as this kind of this backend infrastructure company where we support technology innovation in existing or new platforms.

And I hate to sound cliché or even use another company, but the concept of ‘Nextiles Inside’ or ‘Powered by Nextiles,’ much like Intel Inside, you know, you have this universal chip company powering most of our devices, but for a consumer it’s not that key focal point. They’re still buying an Apple computer. They’re still buying an HP Dell computer, but really the core of it is that chip you’re buying, and we want to be that chip — not a chip per se, it’s fabric, but hopefully that made sense. 

John Koetsier: I get the point. [laughter]

George Sun: So in the next, even in the next coming year, we will love partnerships. We will love to open our doors to manufacturers, to OEMs, to those who want to kind of pivot their product into the wearable space. Because not only can we make garments for the Under Armours out there, for the Nikes out there, we can also do this for things like carpetry. We can also do this for vehicles, if you want to put technology into the car seat. So I think there is a huge spectrum that we want to tackle, but obviously I think you kind of get this now that we tried boiling the ocean … that didn’t work, and so we’re being really precise by working with these athletes, working with these institutions. 

John Koetsier: Nice. Nice. Nice. I think we have to update ‘Intel Inside’ to like ‘ARM Inside’ or something like that—

George Sun: Yes. Yeah. 

John Koetsier: —given that ARM processors have conquered everything. But maybe it’s ‘Nextiles Underneath,’ I don’t know. 

George Sun: Hmm, yeah, actually … trademarked, but yeah. [laughter]

John Koetsier: There you go. Who do you see as a major competitor in the space of smart clothing, smart threads? 

George Sun: Yeah, I think without calling them out by name, because I think right now when it comes to smart fabrics, we’re all in the startup world. I don’t think there’s like an Apple analogy in the smart fabrics world, so I think we’re all very kind of at the starting line trying to race each other.

But most of the companies that I’ve seen who are competitors to us, and hopefully that competition is cordial, are companies who do conductive inks. So that’s a little bit different, right? Conductive inks are, you can kind of imagine like screen printing, right, when you put a logo on your t-shirt kind of like this, you screen print it on. But you can imagine these logos being conductive copper, silver, you know, whatever. We don’t primarily do that.

There’s a few reasons why we don’t use conductive inks. It’s a huge chemical process on its own, like that entails laboratory scale to liquefy metal and to have it be heat pressable and to make sure it doesn’t leak or diffuse to the manufacturer. And more so, I think just sewing is just a more mature technology.

As of now, yeah, you can call me out and say, ‘Yeah, George, can you make 10 million of these?’ Yeah, I can’t. But if you were to tell me, ‘Can you make 10 million shirts using sewing?’ I can say, ‘Yes, we do this every day.’ Sewing, my mom knows how to sew. People in the U.S., from U.S. to China to Mexico, they know how to sew.

If you told them to hold a liquid vat of metal and tell them to screen print something, I think that that takes another learning curve.

So we’re really trying to leverage mature technology. I think the story behind it makes us very happy because we do want to reinvigorate this industry, which actually originated in the U.S., right. That’s why I’m in New York, the garment district, the textile district. So, our competitors are those who like to use exotic chemistries.

And I think our competitors as well, another competitor bucket are those who like to further miniaturize their sensors. So they’re still using the accelerometers. They’re still using the small Bluetooth chips that you’re talking about. They’re not in the form factor of a fabric, but they’re so small that they’re encompassing around the body and we’ll see how far that technology goes. I think we hinted at Moore’s Law, I mean, it can’t go on forever, but we’ll see.

John Koetsier: Interesting. Maybe one personal question to end off: how did you end up in this space? Why are you interested in wearable technology and why did you become a founder of a wearable tech company? 

George Sun: Yeah, hopefully I don’t give you a novella of my life. Stop me if I’m rambling.

John Koetsier: I totally will. You’ve got like 90 seconds. [laughter]

George Sun: Well, when I was studying, I was highly academic. I was highly theoretical when I studied for my bachelor’s to my PhD. You know, most of my work was in chemistry, material science, electronics. I dealt with books. I didn’t deal with people, but it wasn’t until I did these competitions — there were hackathons, to pitch events, to finally being recognized with a few publications — that I had a work experience at Puma.

And that was very eye opening for me to see the theory that I was cultivating for the past 10 years of my life being accelerated to a 6 to 10 month project, right. You know, take all that knowledge you have in your brain and try to make a product out of it. And I think doing that was very exciting. It showed me, it proved to me that products can be made with new tech. And even more so, I think my ambitions for the wearable technology was actually history, was to see how history kind of didn’t go the — to me personally, didn’t go the right way of, you know, we made these semiconductors, which are huge. Let’s make them really, really small and let’s put them on our body.

Which to me, historically, just feels really weird, right? It should be we make clothing; we like clothing; it feels really, really nice; let’s make the clothing smart. So, I kind of wanted to flip the industry upside down and maybe it was a combination of arrogance and confidence and having a great support group. I work with amazing people that I started this company. 

John Koetsier: Wonderful. Well, no startups would get started if people didn’t have, if we weren’t blind to certain things and arrogant about some things, and hoping against hope that we could be successful. So congratulations on that and thank you for taking this time.

George Sun: Amazing. Thank you so much for the time as well. 

Interested in wearables and technology? So am I

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