Wimbledon ball boys and ball girls have cornered the market in stoic roboticism. But if it’s cyborgs you want, look no further than this year’s U.S. Open. A select few ball boys at this year’s tournament will wear Ralph Lauren Polo Tech shirts with biometric tracking capabilities.
The U.S. Open will mark the debut of the Polo Tech “smartshirt,” a snug black nylon compression shirt that will be used by some of the tournament’s feeders. While it won’t be worn by any of the players during matches, NCAA singles champion Marcos Giron will be wearing it during his practice sessions for the U.S. Open.
Although the branding is unmistakably Ralph Lauren — there’s a giant yellow Polo logo on the front — the tech within each shirt was developed by OMsignal. The shirt is a two-piece affair: conductive threads woven into the shirt, and a small snap-on module that weighs less than 1.5 ounces and relays information to a Bluetooth-connected iPhone or iPad.
The “smart” part of the shirt is a stretchy band, under the pectorals, that contains conductive threads that contact the skin. A module Ralph Lauren calls the “Black Box” or “Tech Box” snaps into the shirt around the left rib cage; it receives heart-rate and breathing data from those threads via metal snaps built into the shirt.
Users will need to recharge the box via USB after approximately 30 hours of workout time. In addition to a Bluetooth module, an accelerometer and gyrometer help track the number of steps taken and calories burned. The shirt can go into the wash, but you’ll need to detach the module first.
This is the first smart garment in Polo’s lineup, and because it was built to debut at the U.S. Open, the sidecar iOS-only app was built specifically with tennis in mind. The training version of the app designed for Giron gives a longer-term dashboard of the player’s average respiration and heart rates, court coverage, and stats such as average breathing depth.
The idea for a Polo-branded wearable technology line was about a year in the making, according to David Lauren. Lauren, the company’s executive vice president of global advertising and marketing, told WIRED that the first-generation shirt is a public showpiece for a new Polo lineup coming next spring.
“A lot will come in the next few months,” said Lauren. “The box will be half the size in a few months. … We are a lifestyle brand, a major luxury fashion brand. I want to be able to gather this (biometric) information in a boardroom or from a baby in a crib. We’ll find new needs, and we’re just at the beginning.”
In its current incarnation, the Polo Tech shirt will help U.S. Open officials keep tabs on the health of some tourney ball boys. The iOS app gives users a real-time display of heart and respiration rates, and a daily view of calories burned and steps taken. Not all the tournament’s ball boys will wear the shirts — one or two matches per day will be worked by feeders wearing the biometric clothing. And for now, the shirts have only been designed for males. But when the Polo Tech lineup launches next year, Lauren says to expect many different “fabrics, colors, and fits.”
Ultimately, the adoption of wearable tech is likely to hinge on product lineups like this. It’s a similar strategy to the Tory Burch for Fitbit lineup, even if the target market is totally different. Rather than buy clothing or watches or glasses or wristbands designed by technology companies, the masses are more likely to buy the brands they have always identified with. They’ll still have smart technologies built into them, it’s just that those features will take a backseat to the label.
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