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It's alive! Robotic jacket mimics plants to regulate body temperature

Outerwear companies and startups have long experimented with using battery powered heat to create warmer winter garments. Startup Omius believes there's a more efficient way to use that battery power in regulating personal temperature, addressing a problem that often plagues winter jackets: breathability. The company is creating a jacket that uses artificial intelligence and robotics to automatically adjust your personal temperature during changing weather and activity levels. This might just be the smartest (and eeriest) jacket you've ever seen.

Like plenty of other wearables and tech products, Omius' jacket is inspired by Mother Nature. The Silicon Valley startup looked to plants in devising a better, more natural means of temperature regulation, modeling the jacket's ventilation system after stomata, the microscopic pores that plants open and close to let gases in and out.

The waterproof/windproof fabric of Omius' jacket has its own "stomata," and they're quite visible. The slit-like vents run up and down in columns on the chest and upper back. Right out of the gate, you can tell this jacket doesn't fool around when it comes to circulating air, packing way more ventilation potential than you'd get from the armpit vents on a typical ski jacket.

While the sliced and diced look should prove immediately attractive to anyone with a history of overheating and sweating profusely below a winter shell, it also looks downright tedious to operate – who wants to zip and unzip over a dozen vents? Do you have to take the jacket off to get to those rear vents? It's a migraine in waiting.

But you'll never actually need to manually open the vents at all. Instead, this "living garment" electronically opens and closes the vents as your body temperature rises and dips. The system uses a temperature sensor set to measure body and ambient temperature, and a built-in processor and actuation hardware to open and close the vents.

"Machine learning algorithms let us map out the comfort preferences of each user, allowing the jacket to automatically adapt its protection to the user's preferences, maintaining always the right temperature," explains Omius CEO/CTO Gustavo Cadena. "Over time, the jacket will become an extension of the user, synchronizing its movements with the rest of the body, just like a second skin."

To help dial that synchronization in, the jacket includes pressure sensors so the user can open and close vents manually, all while helping the system learn his or her temperature preferences.

Omius' ventilation system might not sound all that useful if your winter jacket doesn't see much use beyond short walks around the city and waits at the bus stop, where overheating isn't an issue. For sports and aerobic activities, though, it could prove quite helpful. For instance, when ski touring, the jacket could open up like a blossom while you're sweating profusely on the slog uphill, then close into a windproof barrier when you turn around to ski down.

Traditional fabric and garment manufacturers have long searched for new technologies capable of balancing wind/waterproofing and breathability, and Omius drops a turbocharger on the breathability side to make a seamless breathing ventilation system like no other. It might be a bit over-engineered for many users, but if it's actually effective at learning the owner's temperature regulation needs and working like a "second skin," it might be well worth it for those that demand the best in breathability.

The Omius hardware is integrated into the chest, back and armpits of the jacket, adding about 3.5 oz (100 g) of weight, according to the company. That's less weight than your iPhone will add when you drop it in one of the jacket's pockets. The lithium-polymer battery will last about a day, Cadena estimates, and the vents only rely on battery power to actively open and close, not to stay in either state.

Omius has been testing and developing its jacket with help from cyclists, runners, skiers and other athletes. It plans to launch a crowdfunding campaign in the future, and while it's not quite ready to put out a dollar-figure estimate, Cadena does say that the jacket will be priced in line with premium Gore-Tex jackets. That, of course, leaves plenty of pricing wiggle room, but it sounds to us like it'll be "expensive," but not "insanely overpriced for a jacket." We'll have to wait until it shows up on crowdfunding to know for sure, though.

Smart, active heating technology is on the way, too

If you're anything less than a highly active winter sports athlete, your problem with wintertime temperature regulation likely has more to do with keeping warm than with keeping ventilated. Outside of keeping its vents tightly shut, the Omius jacket won't help you out all that much in the warmth department, at least not any more than a regular winter jacket.

On the heating side, French startup Clim8 is developing its own sensor-based temperature regulation system. Sensors embedded in the yarn of Clim8's smart base layer shirt measure skin temperature, ambient temperature, activity level and humidity, routing data through an accompanying smartphone app and automatically adjusting temperature via integrated heating elements. You designate your preferred temperature level on the app, and the Clim8 system keeps you there.

Clim8's design supplements your body's intrinsic thermoregulation capabilities, delivering heating when you're running cold and dialing the heating back when you start working up a sweat. The body-mapped heating system aims heat where you need it most to keep body heat steady. If the technology works smoothly, it should prove a step forward from more basic heated garments that rely on dials to turn heat on, up and off.

Clim8's shirt has not launched yet, but the company has been keeping busy highlighting its technology at trade shows like last month's CES and next week's ISPO Munich/Wearable Technologies, where it has been selected a finalist for both the 2017 ISPO BrandNew Award and the WT Innovation World Cup. An estimate last year put the cost of Clim8's first shirt at around €150 (approx. US$162).

I've been snowboarding for over 20 years, in all kinds of temperatures and weather conditions, and I've never been so cold or so overheated that I felt like I needed an electronic jacket to actively regulate my temperature. Others, however, run colder and push it harder and hotter than I do, and they might find this breed of technology useful. Plus, if wearable technology is going to continue growing as a category, it might as well improve upon the primary functions of clothing and accessories, instead of just adding a bunch of extraneous features (plus mobile app!).

We hope to try out both the Omius and Clim8 garments in the future to see just how well the latest smart tech compares to classic waterproof-breathable fabric, fluffy insulation and moisture-wicking base-layer materials in keeping our body temperature in the zone. 



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