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Future fashion now: a look at wearable tech in TO

The sci-fi and fantasy tales of the 20th century imagined the remarkable things we'd be wearing in the future, from Star Trek's Geordi La Forge's vision visor and Dick Tracy's wrist radio to Superman's bulletproof Kryptonian cape. Now these fantasies are becoming a reality, and entrepreneurs have found fertile territory here in Toronto. 
Silicon Valley is the world leader in the creation of new wearable technologies, but "Toronto is indeed on the map in regards to great research and educational institutions for wearable technology," says LA-based art director and robotics instructor Syuzi Pakhchyan, who pens the blog Fashioning Technology.
One of the companies that's putting us there is high-end men's clothiers Garrison Bespoke, who responded to the needs of their world-travelling clients in the oil and mining industries by coming up with a sharply tailored suit that uses carbon nanotube technology to make it bulletproof. The suit was developed with help from suppliers for the US 19th Special Forces and is made of the same materials as the US troops' uniforms in Iraq. It is designed as a fashion-forward security measure for people who travel to dangerous places for work. 
"There are three layers," says David Tran, Garrison Bespoke's head of special projects. "The first stops the penetration, the second disperses kinetic energy, and the third prevents trauma to the body." There's already a waiting list for the suits, which start at $20,000.
Entrepreneur Joanna Griffiths is targeting a different clientele with her startup Knixwear, high-tech women's underwear that wicks moisture and eliminates odour. The initial production run was financed with $60,000 crowdfunded through Indiegogo, becoming the most-funded Canadian fashion product on the site to date and attracting a wholesale pre-order from Hudson's Bay. In September, the Spandex brand's most elite fabric line, Lycra, approached Griffiths about launching a marketing campaign around Knixwear.
To test the limits of Knixwear, the company has sponsored horseback rider Sarah Cuthbertson who will be participating in the world's longest horse race, the Mongol Derby, next summer. She is one of only 35 riders selected to travel to the Mongolian Steppe to ride 1,000 km in 10 days. Some days she will be riding for more than 12 hours. "I am limited to only 5 kg of gear to carry with me," she says. "Once I account for a sleeping bag, camera, and basic first aid and navigation equipment, there is very little room left for the comforts of fresh clothes. Knowing I can go an extra day...is a huge relief for me."
Then there's OCAD grad Robert Tu, who holds a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Waterloo. He was accepted into OCAD's two-year-old incubator program, which offered him office space and feedback from seasoned mentors to develop his idea for wearable, programmable LED panels that can be applied to almost any garment; currently, Tu uses his to display turn signals and the word "Stop!" while he's cycling.
Taking wearable technology beyond the closet
Wearable technology can have even more profound implications. "If we can get beyond step count, health and wellness can be quite an interesting area for wearables," says Pakhchyan. "Wearable tech has the potential to change our understanding, relationship and perception of our own bodies, and that is quite powerful."
Mike Lovas, chief design officer for Push, is tapping into the Quantified Self movement—those people hooked on measuring their performance in, well, everything—with his wearable device that tracks physical activity performance and shares it with colleagues and coaches. Push was designed to fill the gap between basic daily-wear activity trackers (Nike Fuelband, Jawbone Up, Fitbit) and the expensive, occasional-use equipment like force plates used by top athletes at high-end sports clinics.
"We're going for something with the usability of the all-day activity trackers, but the high-end metrics of the sports devices," says Lovas, who received funding through government, angel investors and Indiegogo (where Push surpassed an $80,000 goal by $54,000). Push is now available for pre-order for $149 per unit, with shipping in spring 2014.
Perhaps most inspiring is eSight eyewear, a product developed in Ottawa and brought to market with the help of Toronto's MaRS Discovery District. It's a portable device that can offer functional vision to those who are legally blind. Currently, each unit costs close to $10,000, but the price is expected to drop with demand, and provincial health plans may adopt it, says Kevin Rankin, president and CEO of eSight Corp. So far, almost 100 Canadians age eight to 90 are using the device daily.
"Toronto has been a key part of bringing this to market," says Rankin, citing the presence of leading vision specialists and advocacy groups, as well as the entrepreneurship expertise of the MaRS Centre as key advantages. Knixwear's Griffiths has also found MaRS's support to be "a huge help." However, she says, "a lot of the fabric brands and mills that are really on the cutting edge do not have offices in Toronto, so you have to be able to travel. I'm a huge supporter of Porter Airlines!"
"For us, Toronto, as a very multicultural, international city, is a great place to be," says Tran of Garrison Bespoke. "We certainly have a great appetite for adopting technology, from a consumer perspective, and we have the SR&ED [Scientific Research and Experimental Development] tax credit for development of new projects, but we definitely need a larger appetite for people to invest into startup projects that are considered higher risk."
Tu and Lovas are enthusiastic about the network of incubators and "maker spaces" that support creative experimentation, like Kate Hartman's Social Body Lab and the Imagination Catalyst, both at OCAD, the hacker collective Hacklab, the electronic media art gallery and production space InterAccess, Ryerson's Digital Media Zone, the Creative Destruction Labs at Rotman School of Management, and Extreme Startups.
Also helpful are meetup groups like Internet of Things and Toronto Wearables, and electronics shop like Active Surplus and Creatron. "Not only that, but online ordering has become so easy that if neither of those places has the parts you want, you can go online and get them," says Tu.
Lovas points out that the universities, from U. of T. to Waterloo, are a rich source of talent. "In Silicon Valley, people get scooped up immediately by the big guys: Apple, Facebook, Google. In Toronto, it's not so saturated, so there's lots of talent."
"Toronto is an amazing place for wearable technology right now," sums up Tu. So now, I'm just waiting for my invisibility cloak.

Sarah B. Hood's writing explores the culture of food, fashion, urban life, environment and the arts. Her latest book, We Sure Can! How Jams and Pickles are Reviving the Lure and Lore of Local Food, was a finalist in Taste Canada—The Food Writing Awards 2012.
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