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Boxer shorts that call 9-1-1
A revolution off the rack, as companies experiment with the smartest clothes around.
January 14, 2005: 4:38 PM EST
By Gordon T. Anderson, CNN/Money staff writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Big ideas like the automobile or the jet engine were called revolutionary. But less heralded inventions affect people's lives much more directly.

These days, pundits marvel at gee-whiz technology like the Internet, and how it is transforming society. Meanwhile, a quiet revolution is taking place in textiles and apparel.

The jargon to describe it is "smart clothing." The term encompasses everything from space-age textiles with astonishing insulation properties to traditional garb spruced up by electronic gadgetry.

Most smart clothing is still experimental. Some items, however, are commercially available, and new product introductions are proceeding apace.

Eventually, the technologies will alter the very fabric of daily life -- whether you pardon that pun or not.

Hitting the slopes in style

Skiers and snowboarders have the coolest offerings so far.

Swatch, for example, sells a chip-embedded watch to replace the traditional lift ticket. You just wave it in front of a sensor before boarding the lifts. Some of the 400 ski resorts where it works have even installed special access lanes for its wearers, like an E-Z Pass for the slopes (about $50, plus the cost of the ticket).

There's also plenty of outerwear designed to bring music to the mountain. The most famous is an iPod-ready coat made by Burton ($365). You bury your iPod in an interior pocket, then manipulate the device with controls on the outside of your sleeve.

Not to be outdone, Oakley sells the Thump sunglasses ($500), which double as an MP3 player.

Nike, teaming up with tech company ACG, offers a coat ($600) that transmits radio waves. Equipped with a microphone in the lapel and speakers in the collar, it lets you talk to a friend on the other side of the mountain without having to worry about cell-phone reception. Of course, your pal will need to buy one, too.

When darkness falls, Marmot's El jacket ($750) might come in handy. It features battery-powered lighting in the forearms and shoulders, with an on-off switch in the cuff. On late afternoon runs, it lets you see and be seen.

The article with the most gizmo potential may be the Scott eVest. It has up to 42 pockets, in which you can stuff MP3 players, cameras, cell phones, etc. A solar panel on the back of the coat collects and stores energy, which powers all those devices (about $600).

Life-saving fabrics

Ultimately, the market for smart clothing will extend far beyond its current audience of early adapters with fetishes for gear.

Textiles are getting smarter, as companies weave tiny sensors into fabric to gather and distribute information about the human wearing it.

Philips, the Dutch multinational, has developed a line of underwear, bras and accessories containing tiny electronic devices that monitor heart rates, body temperature, insulin levels and other parameters. When some measure goes awry -- think heart attacks or strokes -- your boxer shorts call an ambulance.

Philips expects the product to be widely available in Europe by the end of 2006.

Germany's Infineon Technologies offers something called a thermogenerator, which measures the difference between body temperature and the temperature of the garment. Too cold or too warm? Your shirt will be able to fix it.

Then there's the "joy dress," which has been prototyped by Alexandra Fede, an Italian designer. It massages women as they wear it, again via tiny sensors and a programmable microchip in the fabric.

The ideas are coming fast and furious. Orvis has a hit with its Buzz Off line of clothes, which emit insect-repellant scents (from $18 for socks to $170 for a jacket). Fly fishers like them, but so would people in malaria-ridden neighborhoods.

Not one to go wading through wetlands? There may still be a scent-emitting textile for you. Various companies are working on fabrics that sense when you sweat, then counteract the odor by releasing perfume.

The Good Life is a weekly column that chronicles products, people and trends in luxury consumer goods, travel, and fine food and drink. Write to:  Top of page


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