Ball-boys at this year’s U.S. Open tennis championships in New York are unlikely heralds of what is seen as a new multibillion dollar business line for apparel fashion labels — the much-hyped wearable tech. You could be part of that by as soon as next spring by buying a Ralph Lauren Polo shirt that measures your biometrics as you partake in any activity, or just go about your day.
It is the going-about-your-day part of that that makes this particularly foray into wearable tech doubly interesting. It could also be in the vanguard of everyday wearable tech for general wellness and lifestyle monitoring, not just performance tracking during high-intensity athletic activity.
Ralph Lauren, which is the official outfitter of the U.S. Tennis Federation’s two-week fest, is dressing ball-boys (though not ball-girls this year) in a new line of what are called in the trade biometric smartwear — compression shirts made from a conductive yarn that connect embedded sensors to a tracker that monitors heart rate, breathing and activity.
The data gathered is sent to the cloud, analyzed and returned to the wearer's smartphone or other mobile device via a proprietary Ralph Lauren iOS app that reports a standard range of measures such as heart rate zones, steps taken, calories burned and the like (see the image to the left below). An Android version of the app is likely to follow in short order.
Marcos Giron, the top-ranked U.S. college player, who is appearing in his first U.S. Open, will also wear the company’s Polo Tech shirt during practice. The ball-boys are the smarter marketing move. They will be in front of the TV cameras throughout the tournament — and guaranteed to appear in the finals.
The shirt is expected to be the first in a line of wearable tech fashions from Ralph Lauren. The company claims it is the first mainstream fashion label to launch a line of tech apparel. Diane Furstenberg has been working with Google Glass and Alexander McQueen has melded mobile phones and vintage bags for Mulberry, but we concede neither effort counts as a fashion line.
The Polo Tech shirt is still at the prototype stage. It has been developed by a three-year old Canadian start-up, OMsignal. (The OM is derived from the the yoga mantra OM). It has priced its version, the Endurance Fitness Short Sleeved Shirt with tracking module for $199. A shirt alone will cost $99. Both will be available from November, but for men only at first. Ralph Lauren branded versions are expected to start appearing in retail stores sometime during the first half of next year. Price yet to be set.
The shirts look at first blush to be a consumer extension of technology used in kit now in wide use in professional sports for monitoring the performance of athletes during training, but without the GPS functionality. They similarly contain a breathing sensor, a gyroscope and an accelerometer to generate the data, while the tight fit, or compression, is intended to stimulate blood flow and help with muscle recovery. It is the capacity to monitor breathing technology that makes this shirt more than a stylish heart-rate monitor.
“Ultimately we are going to try to use this technology to be part of your entire lifestyle, incorporating the special threading and the special technology into all kinds of clothing,” David Lauren, son of founder Ralph and in charge of the brand’s digital division, says.
The idea behind OM and Ralph Lauren’s approach is that by providing garments that can be worn all day and cover most of the body it will be possible to build up a more comprehensive picture of an individual’s overall health and wellness than would be got from just monitoring periods of high workout intensity.
OM has said it sees its future as being like GoreTex, the branded waterproofing and insulation technology that many outerwear manufacturers incorporate into their clothing. If that happens, its electronic textile is likely to become commonplace, found in most every T-shirt, pair of pants or dress you buy, not to say every work-out, race and training top, shorts, leggings and socks you splash out for.
Too much information? For some, perhaps. But with tech companies, consumer brands, medical device manufacturers and sports apparel makers from Apple to Garmin, Google, Jawbone, Medtronics, Nike, and Samsung piling into the market for extracting data from your clothing and every move you make in it, it is game on in a big way.