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Is this what it’s like to have cleavage? We donned a ‘smart t-shirt’ with 896 LEDs

While Samsung, LG and Sony battle over whose smartwatch belongs on your wrist, Ballantine’s has set its sights on less contested turf: your torso. Back in January, the whiskey brand revealed TShirtOS, a “smart t-shirt” with embedded LEDs that could light up to dazzle onlookers like a wearable billboard. It was still just a concept then, but now there are real, working prototypes.

And I got to try one on and stroll around town.

The shirt was delivered to me in a large aluminum case, the type in which one would expect to find a device for launching a nuclear missile. Why did it arrive in such a thing? For a start, it’s one of just 25 in the world, and apparently worth a rather heady £2,500, or about $4,200. But mainly because it comes with a bag full of accessories, and a surprisingly thick instruction manual. T-shirts are straight forward items of clothing. Get your head through the right hole, and you’re pretty much done. While this is basically true of TShirtOS, it also requires the same level of setup as a new Bluetooth accessory for your smartphone, because ultimately, that’s exactly what it is.

V-necks, Bluetooth, and battery packs

Created by Ballantine’s, interactive fashion firm Cute Circuit in London, and tech fashion experts Switch Embassy in San Francisco, TShirtOS is way beyond other electronic t-shirts, which show a single, basic image on the front. This has an actual LED screen covered in 896 white LEDs, and Bluetooth connectivity. Hook it up to your Android smartphone, and an app lets you display your own animated text, or choose one from a pre-built selection. What makes TShirtOS really different, is the way the screen has been woven into the material. It’s completely flexible, lightweight, and washable too.

The LEDs are startlingly bright and the looped animation makes it incredibly eye-catching.

The V-neck t-shirt is made of a soft and very strokeable fabric. Slip it on, and it feels great against your skin. At first glance, it’s like any other shirt, but there are one or two differences between this and one from Gap, known only to the wearer.

Running down both flanks are a pair of battery packs. They’re not obvious unless the t-shirt is a bit small on you, but they do weigh enough to make it feel like you’re wearing a lightweight jacket. Also, a full-size USB cable runs out of the bottom edge. This connects to the brain module, which is about the same size as the case for a pair of sunglasses. It slips into your pocket, just, along with the cable overhang.

You soon get used to all the equipment, but no-one would buy it in its current configuration. This is only a prototype though, and all the electronics should be miniaturized before production.

Fashion for the attention starved

After charging the batteries — something I never expected to have to do to a piece of clothing — I plucked up the courage to put on the t-shirt and head outside. I’m not a gregarious 21-year-old, I’m a tech writer who’s, um, older than that, and the thought of wearing something so “look at me” didn’t sit right with my character. That first outing felt weird.

Viewed with the screen turned off, it looks like any other shirt. Turn it on, and it comes alive. The LEDs are startlingly bright in anything except full sunlight, and the looped animation makes it incredibly eye-catching. Nobody pointed and laughed, but there were plenty of double takes, and I’d notice people’s gaze drop to look at the shirt, before meeting my eyes again. Ballantine’s TShirtOS was in danger of turning me into Kitty from Arrested Development.

Overwhelmingly, people — in particular kids — loved the shirt, and everyone I chatted to enjoyed putting in their own messages to watch scroll across my chest. While TShirtOS isn’t available to the public right now, the ultimate plan is to put it on sale, so would any of these people actually wear it? Sure, they all thought it was cool, but only one person out of the dozens with which I spoke would actually buy and wear it. I encouraged my best friend to wear it on a dress-down day at his office. He refused.

In conversations about who would wear it, why, and where, the same subjects continually came up. Many envisaged it only for promotional use, while others saw it as being a bit of fun on a stag or hen weekend. Some saw it only being worn for clubbing, or on a rowdy night out. In short, it was a fad, and TShirtOS would lay abandoned in the back of the closet once the big weekend was over.

However, they’re all wrong.

Bazinga, TShirtOS needs a geeky model to become a hit

Everyone was seeing, and therefore only considering, the shirt with the screen on, flashing about like an attention-starved sign at the train station. With the screen turned off, Ballentine’s TShirtOS is just a regular t-shirt. It’s perfectly comfortable, it looks good, and is well-made. When the mood strikes, you pull out your phone and share a thought, image, or emotion on your shirt. As a society, many of us overshare on social networks everyday, often without any response from the rest of the world. Sharing something similar, in real-time, on your t-shirt is an extension of this.

It’s the convergence of your digital life and your real life, inside a piece of clothing.

You’ve probably heard the analogy that tweeting is like standing in the street and shouting your thoughts at passers-by. Well, with TShirtOS, you wouldn’t need to shout, and your audience wouldn’t need to look at their phones to know what you were thinking of having for lunch. It’s the convergence of your digital life and your real life, inside a piece of clothing that hasn’t really changed since its birth. That makes it fascinating, and potentially a future hit with anyone obsessed with social media.

During my basic market research, it’s clear people still need to be convinced. What’s needed is the right spokesman and model, and although it pains me to admit it, I’m probably not the man for the job. I know who is though: Dr. Sheldon Cooper. The Big Bang Theory came up in a conversation with the one person who would wear TShirtOS, and she saw it as something the neurotic character would wear. Anyone familiar with the show could certainly imagine an episode where Sheldon decides to communicate solely using TShirtOS and his smartphone. In fact, no-one steal that, I’ll pitch it to CBS when I’m finished here.

Right now, Ballentine’s TShirtOS is a novelty, but with a guest spot on one of the most popular geeky TV shows, could bring it a few tantalizing steps away from mainstream acceptance.

The question is, would you wear it?

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