Welcome to the future: OMsignal releases first collection of smart clothing, hints at the true power of quantified self

By Michael Carney , written on May 8, 2014

From The News Desk

Stephane Marceau’s heart was pounding at 85 beats per minute, revealing the mixture of excitement and nerves he felt as he prepared to demo his life's work. His lungs were expanding and contracting at a rate of 11 breaths per minute, and he had already taken 2,000 steps, burning nearly 1,000 calories well before lunch. We were sitting outside of a Starbucks in sunny southern California and Marceau's vital signs were broadcasting to an iPhone resting in my palm. It was better than magic, it was the future.

It’s not often I see a new product or service that I know in my bones will change the world, but I couldn’t help but feel that way last week when I sat down with Stephane Marceau, co-founder and CEO of OMsignal. I had been excited about the intelligent textiles company since I first learned of the project over a year ago, but finally seeing the sensor-enabled clothing in person brought home the massive potential impact of this technology.

After two and a half years in development, OMsignal is finally releasing its first collection of performance tracking clothing. The embedded sensors in each garment – initially a collection of four different styles of men’s smart shirts (undershirt, sleeveless shirt, casual T-shirt, and long-sleeved shirt) –  monitor a user’s activity, physiological stress, and fitness levels in real time. This data, which far surpasses anything gathered by the glorified pedometers that many consumers today wear on their wrists, is then collected through a small, bluetooth-enabled “little black box” clipped to the shirt alongside the user’s torso, which transmits to the OMsignal iOS app.

“We like to call it the ABCs of health: activity, breathing, and cardiac,” Marceau says. “But we go a step beyond just collecting that data and look to interpret and deliver actionable insights based on that analysis.”

OMsignal app

The OM shirts go on pre-sale today on the company’s website and will be delivered this Summer, likely in July, according to Marceau. The “OMsignal Up & Running Kit” includes one shirt of any style and color, as well as a “little black box” for a price of $199 – a discount off the $240-plus MSRP. Additional packages include two and three shirts for prices of $269 and $359 respectively. Shirts are sold separately for an MSRP of $100 to $140, while replacement or additional black boxes are priced at $140.

The concept of smart textiles is hardly new, but no one, anywhere in the world, has brought to market a product as complete and compelling as OM. Trust me, I’ve been looking. It’s not all that surprising, given the difficulty involved in such a task. OM employs a team of several dozen experts in engineering, performance textiles, and bio-engagement, and has been working with some of the world’s leading specialty manufacturers.

“Initially we thought we could just build a software platform and outsource the garment design,” Marceau says. “Boy were we wrong. We quickly learned that we had to become a ‘full stack plus’ operation. That may change over time, but at this point, this is the only way to deliver the experience we want.”

Despite featuring silver thread throughout, woven to create strategically placed health-monitoring electrodes, all OM garments are machine washable. The garments also don’t look bionic or even unfashionable. Rather, they look like any other compression garment that might be made by Under Armour, Nike, or Lululemon. It’s a testament to the work that went into product development.

Marceau believes that OMsignal has built an industry-best capability for collecting accurate biological data via textile-embedded sensors. But just as importantly, the company has done a good job of delivering that data in an informative yet approachable visual format. The result is that users get an unprecedented view into their body performance.

But looking ahead, the more compelling opportunity comes when OMsignal aggregates and dissects the data of thousands and eventually millions (Marceau hopes) of users. It’s an opportunity that is available to all quantified self companies, but given the breadth of sensor data that OM captures, this platform should assemble a particularly attractive data set. From this it will be able to benchmark users' health statistics against those with similar demographic and behavioral criteria. The company may also be able to identify previously unknown patterns in bio-markers like heart rhythm and breathing, perhaps to uncover early warning signs for heart attacks, strokes, or other medical conditions.

“Most wearables today offer a look into the rearview mirror of the user’s health and personal performance,” Marceau says. “Some are just starting to offer what might be called a side view or real-time look. But where we see this going is for consumers to be able to look forward and see what’s coming.”

It will likely be the data and analytics, rather than the textiles, that becomes the most valuable cog in this wheel. With this in mind, Marceau is building OM as a platform that can plug into other hardware and data sources. The goal is to make OMsignal the future hub of the quantified self, meaning that licensing its textiles IP to large athletic wear brands is not out of the question. Of course, medical data is perhaps the most personal data of all, so OMsignal will also have to instill trust in its users that it utilizes the information it collects responsibly.

"We take privacy and security extremely seriously and are going to let the consumer dictate where and how we use their data," Marceau says.

Montreal-based OMsignal has funding in the single-digit millions, including an as-yet-unreported “re-up” of existing seed investors Golden Venture Partners, Real Ventures, and David Cohen, according to Marceau. But the company has also been able to access Canadian federal R&D grants and has joined the Flextronics Lab accelerator, affording it access to design and manufacturing infrastructure at advantageous terms.

This would be a nominal amount of funding for a traditional fashion ecommerce company, let alone one looking to create smart clothing. It’s therefore unsurprising that OM has decided to go the pre-sale route for its initial product rollout. But nonetheless, it seems that being undercapitalized is among the greatest risks that the young company faces.

Despite all the technological wizardry that OM has accomplished, the company still faces meaningful challenges. Producing a handful of smart shirt prototypes is a far different thing than producing large quantities and fulfilling customer orders. Even that is a good problem to have because it means a company has orders, something OM has yet to demonstrate that it can generate.

R&D will likely always be a large part of the OMsignal operation, but over the next phase, Marceau needs to prove that he can build effective sales and marketing, as well as supply chain and fulfillment operations. As much as the price point and initial marketing materials may target performance athletes and hardcore bio-hackers, the reality is that smart clothing will likely be mainstream in three to five years, and prices will necessarily fall precipitously over time.

But just for a moment, let’s assume that OMsignal can figure out these executional challenges and imagine a world where millions of people around the world are wearing bio-sensing clothing throughout most or even a portion of their day. The impact that this could have on global health and wellness is profound. There’s no doubt we need it.

Thanks to technologies like OMsignal, the next several years are going to be transformative. I could not think of a more exciting era in which to live. Here’s to the future.