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Apr 11

NFC in the Fashion World

“The Future is Here” has been a popular saying among tech companies for decades, and with each iteration of this statement, we often find another unexpected area of life that is enhanced by technology. The most recent of such developments comes to the fashion industry’s closest and most valuable arenas – clothing. “Smart Clothes” are the hallmark of this part of history.

Avery Dennison Corporation is one of the leading companies getting involved in the smart clothing revolution, and they have grasped the beginning of the enormous potential of this emerging marketplace:

Imagine you’ve just purchased a new jacket from your favorite brand. You put it on for the first time, and scan a tag embedded in the sleeve with your phone. A menu of options pops up.

You can find information about the jacket’s design, how the brand selected only sustainable materials, and details on the exact factory where the product was made. You plug in your earphones and listen to a playlist the brand put together.

Later in the week, you head to a party that the label is throwing to celebrate its latest collection, and the bouncer scans your RFID, (like the radio-frequency identification tags in key fobs or prepaid toll devices), which functions as your ticket. Somebody spills a drink on  your new jacket – of course – so the next day, you throw it in the wash. It automatically communicates with your washing machine to select the right laundry setting. (Mark Bain, Quartz.com)

Smart clothing relies on an interface to connect the items (and their wearers) to the connected world through the Internet. That interface device needs to carry unique product identification, and it needs to be secured from unlawful duplication itself. It also must be able to reliably keep the customer apprised of anything the product brand manufacturer wants them to know about. Further, the device must not require any power supply, but it must be able to communicate wirelessly with other devices.

The present tool that allows all of this is the NFC (Near Field Communications) chip, which allows all of the required functionality to exist. While most NFC chips in production today are not waterproof, there are a small number of manufacturers that make them in waterproof options, and as the smart clothing industry accelerates, the demand for such chips is expected to increase.

These “chips” are usually physically flexible, and they are very small and easily hidden without making much of any alteration to the typical processes of clothing manufacture. As this photograph shows, the technology need not look any more exotic than the ubiquitous clothing label. In several of the tags shown in the photo below, there are embedded NFC devices. On average these devices are no larger than one square centimeter in size.

Common clothing tags, or are they? At least two of these are “Smart Tags” with NFC-tech embedded. Can you guess which ones?

But by its own nature, clothing presents inherent problems to IoT (Internet of Things) devices. For one, there is water. Water and computer components do not play well together, and any traditional hardware that is embedded in clothing would require removal from that clothing or else the first time in the washing machine would be the last communication that item of clothing executes with the outside world.

One solution to this problem is to facilitate easy removal of the electronic component, but this creates the problem of not truly having smart clothing, especially if the owner loses the component. The better solution is for the NFC device to be waterproof, as well as able to withstand great temperatures, such as in hot water or hot air in a dryer.

Have NFC makers risen to this challenge? Yes they have. ShopNFC offers a tag that is wearable and resistant to temperatures of a staggering 150C, which well above the boiling point of water. The blurb for this tag further states:

The only stretchable NFC Tag, that can be sewn, ironed, bent and crumpled. Completely waterproof, resistant up to 150°C. Universal compatibility.

The tag price here of 2.50 Euro might seem to be rather stiff for a tiny wearable NFC tag, but in context of the high-end fashion brands that feature this technology, the cost evens out. Cloudburst Wear, a Moscow, Russia fashion label, sells its clothing items for an average of $100 for a T-shirt, so the addition of a $3 tag is no great bump in the price. Their other products, such as their $850 vest and their $1,100 jumpsuit make NFC tagging even more attractive, both as an option for product authenticity verification and special extended features after-market.

Fashion brands are catching the trend

As a decidedly non-fashion oriented guy, I was initially not impressed with the idea of tagging fashion items. As they are marketed to an audience that is shown to care about sophistication in appearance, it seemed that their interests would not extend into the semi-mystical Internet of Things, aside from the utility of verifying that a given product is authentic. I was well aware of the “fake Gucci bag” phenomenon in New York City from years ago, and this idea does indeed go a very long way towards making sure that one’s hard-earned money indeed gets them that Gucci bag and not a fake.

However, discussion with the innovators at Verisium showed me a very different set of facts. The Fashion industry is actually extremely interested in all the aftermarket customer connection opportunities that NFC tagging affords.

Using our Gucci bag as an example, now, with NFC technology, not only does the customer know their item is the real thing, but they also purchase much more than a bag. They actually engage into an entire “product experience” that starts from the time they first scan the bag to the time that they trade it in or re-sell it, as is wont to happen with such expensive items.

This product experience includes invitations to special brand-sponsored events, such as fashion shows, concerts, music tracks or video content. It also can serve to notify the customer of any new incentives Gucci or any partnered brands might offer that the customer would not know about otherwise. This is potentially huge. High-fashion brands tend not to advertise in the same media that other items do; in my experience, clothing fashions are shown on magazine pages much more commonly than on TV, probably a throwback to the fact that magazine photos are extremely good quality compared to legacy television.

But the customer product experience is mirrored by the brand’s side as well. Brands can gather analytics data about their customers. They can also target owners of certain items in “step-up” campaigns or “resale” opportunities should their present product begin to appear a bit dated. They can maintain contact with their customers throughout the entire life cycle of the product, which is a huge innovation and one that can bring a massive surge in aftermarket promotional sales success.

As fashion and high-end brands have learned about this opportunity, they have been responding with great interest.

In July of 2018, a three-day “Wear Conference” was packed with both fashionistas and technologists. The conference was reportedly very technical in its focus, but still had great attendance. Significant in the report was the involvement of women in senior tech management positions representing brands such as Patagonia, Google, Levi-Strauss and Co., Intel, Velcro, Ralph Lauren, Microsoft, Kimberly Clark, Eileen Fisher and Dupont.

Paula Hunter, who wrote about this event, further had this to say:

I highly recommend NFC Forum members attend this conference going forward as it is an ideal forum to spread the word to a receptive audience about NFC technology and tags.

The strong turnout for this conference was not surprising as 245 million wearables will be sold worldwide in 2019 – up from 84 million wearable devices sold in 2015 according to CSS Insight. This shows that not only are more people buying wearables, but more wearables implementing NFC are being made – wearables with NFC (especially watches and textiles) will soon become a staple item for consumers. NFC technology is already making an impact in the wearable industry as seen in some of the presentations at the conference. NuCurrent (wireless charging) and Inuheat (fabrics that you can heat up) both talked about NFC technology in their presentations.

The conference was located on 7th “Fashion” Avenue at the Fashion Institute of Technology, an internationally recognized college for design, fashion, art, communications, and business… NFC in a wearable product will improve the customer experience, [enhance] brand engagement and help create new, innovative products.

This is not the only report, and additional stories of brand use of NFC technology highlight ever more interesting usages of the technology. We can see this from these headlines and brief descriptions, all of which are hyperlinked for further reading:

The future is now. And NFC and smart clothing is here to stay.

Suddenly, even “buckling up” is a whole new experience.