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Wearable Technology Creates New Fashion Statement - 2000-10-19

Soon you may be able to make a telephone call simply by talking into the sleeve of your jacket. Clothing and electronics makers are pooling their expertise to create a new fashion statement: Wearable technology.

The first commercial creations, water resistant outdoor jackets with electronic gadgetry built in, are available in Paris, London and Milan. A joint effort by Philips N.V., a Dutch electronics firm, and U.S. clothing maker Levi Strauss, the jackets contain a music player, cellular phone and headset.

Wearers can turn on the music player by touching their pockets and adjust the volume by pressing buttons on the jacket's sleeve. These are the first articles of electronic clothing to hit the market, but Nike representative Bob Mitchell predicts they will turn out to be the first of many. "It's something we've been working on for a long time, and we've got at Nike a lot of products that at this time will allow people to wear their electronic devices: things, tape players, disc players, and we're certainly looking at developing that wearable technology line even further," he said.

Mr. Mitchell said Nike's wearable technology will start with music players carefully woven into fashionable running shirts, because athletes like music when they are working out. Then, he said, Nike plans to build other equipment into its athletic clothing. "We are also very quickly developing a product that will enhance performance and also give athletes an idea of how they are performing. We're developing heart monitors, and monitors that will measure distance. We are developing altitude monitors. We are really trying to address all the needs of athletes," he said.

And if putting on a shirt with an altitude monitor built into the pocket seems strange, how about the idea of wearing a computer sweater?

Alexandra Kahn, spokesperson for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, said they are experimenting with just such an idea. "We are looking at developing threads that can be woven into your clothes that are conductive, threads that have a metallic base of some kind, that are very flexible and very durable and very conductive and very machine washable. We are envisioning ways that you could carry around your computing with you instead of in a laptop, it would be part of your jacket or your shoes," she said.

"Envisioning" is the important word there. While cellular phone shirts may appear on the market any day now, Alexandra Kahn admits computer sweaters are still in the development stages.