Apple's most mysterious hires over the last year have something to do with fashion. Apple first hired Ex-Yves Saint Laurent last July which was then followed by Ex-Nike Ben Shaffer in September and quickly followed by retail superstar Angela Ahrendts in October. Apple's very focused series of hires specializing in fashion in one form or another led to speculation that it was connected to Apple's future iWatch which was made public last February. And yet if you honestly think about it, Apple's new talent pool is complete overkill for a just a single wearable device in the form of a smartwatch. In fact it really never made much sense to have that much star power and talent for such a finite project. Now new research has come to light in a lab far from Cupertino that may actually provide us with a clue that could unravel one of Apple's secret projects: smart clothing.
For years Apple has been acquiring patents and inventing things related to sportswear such as skiwear which covers boots, skis and snowboards. Apple has even been granted a patent about smart garments. We noted in a January 2012 report that "Although the smart running shoe is the main focus of this particular patent, the patent does state that "authorized garments" include shirts and slacks."
Yet when it comes to future wearable computers, everyone is stuck on Apple's plausible iWatch. Even when Apple kick started production in their new sapphire plant in Mesa Arizona, Apple's CEO made it clear that their Sapphire plant was for a "secret project,"and not for iPhone cover glass.
Yet most tech writers simply dismissed that statement and continued to focus on the sapphire being for cover glass. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, but for now, Apple's CEO has spoken on this issue, plainly and clearly. Perhaps it's a matter of semantics, meaning that it's not about glass covers as much as it is about a new iPhone form factor such as this one or perhaps one like this. Yet could Apple's secret project go far beyond the obvious?
We noted once again in a report yesterday about Nike dismantling their FuelBand team that when Tim Cook spoke with Walt Mossberg last year he grumbled at the very idea of a watch or wristband product of any kind – and yet left the door wide open by saying that "other wearables" could be interesting down the road.
Beyond sapphire, Apple has also been secretly working on a material related project for years connected with liquid-metal that is technically a glass metal and/or glass fiber. Apple's secret work with glass is fascinating the Apple community even though it befuddles them. While we're hoping for a new and sexy flexible display based on sapphire for a future iPhone, there's something else that could be much more important down the road. Something that brings us back to why Apple may have hired a brilliant team steeped with high fashion and high-end retailing experience
Is this the Next Big Thing?
One of the breakthroughs that the smartphone industry has been seeking desperately for in recent years is a breakthrough in battery life to fuel the smartphone and phablet revolution. And yet nothing all that promising is on the horizon. Well not until now that is.
According to a new report, a team of researchers have developed a thermo-element that produces electricity when worn on the human body using body temperature. This technology, which could solve the problems associated with wearable device batteries, is expected of commercialization within the next two or three years.
This new technology which was developed in Korea directly relates to a "wearable thermo-element" that could be used as a power supply source for wearable devices.
The simplicity of it is that thermo-elements convert thermal energy to electric energy. The existing commercial level thermo-elements made with ceramic substrates are hard, unbendable, heavy and low in energy efficiency, and thus are difficult to be applied to wearable electronic devices.
The new thermo-element is made with glass fiber, and thus could be processed in the form of clothing. It is also lightweight and high in electric power production efficiency. Compared to ceramic substrate elements of the same weight, electric power production capacity of the new thermo-element is higher by as many as 14 times.
Made in the shape of a band measuring 10cm in length and width that could be worn around the arm, this thermo-element could produce electricity of approx. 40mW when outside temperature is 20C (approx. 17C lower than body temperature). This is enough to start a semiconductor chip. When made in the size equivalent to a jacket (50- 100cm), it produces approx. 2W, which is enough for using a mobile phone.
When commercialized, the thermo-element will mark a ground-breaking turning point in power supply to wearable devices. Wearable device batteries available at the moment have a short lifespan, and thus need to be changed frequently.
In addition, users found it inconvenient to carry around the heavy and large batteries. In particular, unlike the existing elements, the new thermo-element could be manufactured with a large area, which facilitates mass-production. Therefore, it is highly likely to be used as a key power supply source for wearable devices.
The scientific team's goal is to start a new era of portable devices that don't require batteries by commercializing this element that produces electricity when worn as a clothing item.
Imagine Apple actually being ahead of this Korean team with glass fiber technology. Imagine Apple developing a whole new category entry relating to a new high-end line of retail stores dedicated to the next big thing – clothing designed with materials to power wearable devices and your iPhone or phablet so that you'll never run out of power again. Imagine Apple being a next generation clothier.
Think about business suits that would have a pocket designed to power your iPhone all day whenever you need it on the go, at a conference, every day you wear that specialized suit with breakthrough charging technology.
For ladies, think about a line of high-end designer purses that would continually power your mobile devices. For the tech savvy executive or a night out with friends, your mobile device would never die. Could you imagine how well that would sell?
And of course it would extend to skiwear and other sporting wear as we outlined earlier. The idea is explosive has no boundary when it comes to where this technology could be extended to in clothing. All of a sudden a light goes on to the possibility of one of Apple's secret projects tying in many factors that have leaked out over the last year.
The idea is right. It's just a matter of figuring out how far Apple could take this. Will they simply partner with top-end clothiers and stores like Target and Walmart or open a completely new line of specialty stores in major centers? Apple certainly has the retail superstar excutives on board to pull off such projects either way. Yet for now, the idea of smart clothing being a possible breakthrough project is as far as we could possibly go without getting lost in the hypothetical land of endless speculation.
Could it be?