The buzz around intelligent textiles and garments may have continued for about a decade, with research projects and prototypes cropping up worldwide - but commercial success has so far eluded the industry. While barriers remain in terms of consumer demand, cost and applications, industry experts predict that smart textiles will soon make a major impact in a number of markets, significantly changing consumer thinking around apparel.

According to an April 2012 report from UK-based technology consulting firm Cientifica, which takes a look at the key applications for nanotechnologies in future major textile markets, the highest growth in nanotech-related textiles and clothing over the next decade will be in the areas of smart and technical textiles.

While growth in the professional services market - such as healthcare, military, and protective services - seems certain, Dr Martin Kemp, theme manager for engineering applications at the UK-based NanoKTN (Nanotechnology Knowledge Transfer Network) says the future of smart textiles in the consumer market is harder to predict.

"The consumer market is very fickle - some things take off and you sell tens of millions, and with other great ideas you many only sell five. I think that is why most people developing [smart textile] technology are looking at professional services, where they know the market is willing to pay the high margin for technology."

Kemp says that overall, he sees healthcare as the major growth market for smart textiles in the future - especially when it comes to monitoring the ageing population at home.

"There is a trend to try and not fill up hospitals with people who could potentially look after themselves - but of course, they need monitoring, for body functions and/or in the event of any accidents," he says, adding that benefits could be as simple as health care providers being able to check whether a patient has taken their medication from day to day, and monitor them remotely.

Christian Dalsgaard, director of Danish intelligent textile development company Ohmatex agrees with Kemp that there has not yet been enough evidence of consumer demand for smart textiles to be able to predict future demand.

"I don't see any real market for consumer [smart] textiles - I have heard so much about T-shirts that change colours, heated coatings, displays in the sleeves of garments...but I have not seen any of these applications really being successful," he says. "[They] do not give enough added value."

Personalisation and individualisation
According to Rita Paradiso however, R&D director of Italian technical textiles development company Smartex, e-textiles do have a promising future in the entertainment and leisure markets as well as in the professional services industry.

"Now that technology is quite sophisticated, people are using technology for fun, and not just for technical tasks," she says. "All the applications you can run on your smartphone can be personalised, and by combining this technology with textiles comes the ability to personalise your textiles; a new possibility that was not available before."

The consumer industry's growing appetite for personalisation and individualisation in the products and services they use is an important trend for research institutions and technology companies to consider smart textile developments, says Paradiso.

She predicts, too, that with future e-textiles, it will be possible to use signals from garment sensors to not only perform immediate, isolated functions, but to take this information and combine it with other data and behaviours demonstrated by the wearer - such as the way he or she interacts with their smartphones and computers - to produce larger-scale results and functionality.

"The future [of e-textiles] is in the combination of this information and in the management of data. Smart textiles will be developed with the ability to have not just a passive textiles system, but an active one."

Justyna Teverovsky, partner at US-based consulting firm Fabric Works LLC agrees that the possibilities for smart textiles in the consumer market are endless.

"The miniaturisation and personalisation of devices, and the coming of age of a generation which is more technically literate and uses technology as part of the social fabric, makes smart textiles practically inevitable," she believes.

"It is a generation that has grown up with light-up shoes, personalised cell phone rings, instant messaging, glow sticks, and electronic candy. For them, information should be instantaneous and ubiquitous, and drawing attention to themselves using personal displays of sound and light is socially acceptable."

Teverovsky says these traits provide the industry with a willing, 'young' market for e-textile products; one that will be more adept at interfacing with unusual forms for devices, as well. "The only questions are the timing, and which company will come up with the killer app."

Production challenges
Applications aside though, says Kemp, one barrier to introducing smart textiles to a mass market has to do with the way the entire production process is set up.

"Since most textile production is overseas, there is the question of how to build these technologies into a production line," he says. "So although we have people developing these fantastic ideas in the West, somehow they have to be translated into something which can be [produced] in a factory."

Paradiso agrees that the "growing crisis in the textile sector" - of manufacturing moving from west to east - may be a significant barrier for the future of smart textiles.

"Although Western countries would control the design of the e-textile systems, most components of those systems would not be manufactured in western countries," she notes, adding that this may pose a problem for especially complex designs.