File this under things you didn’t know you needed: Ministry of Supply, the MIT-founded apparel brand that uses NASA technology in its fabrics, is launching a heated jacket that can be controlled by your voice.
The Boston company, which was founded five years ago through a Kickstarter campaign, distinguished itself with workwear staples like dress shirts, pants, and suits with performance-inspired fabrics that help regulate body temperatures. It’s grown to eight stores across the country, including a location on Newbury Street
On Wednesday, Ministry will return to its Kickstarter roots to launch its new line of intelligent outerwear. The jackets and vests have an internal heating system that uses sensors to detect internal body temperature and the temperature outside. The heater connects via Bluetooth to your phone, allowing you to adjust the heat using an app. The jacket also uses accelerometer data to track movement — meaning that it will kick up the heat while you’re standing at a bus stop, or turn it down while you’re hustling to catch the train.
The inspiration for the jackets, said cofounder and president Gihan Amarasiriwardena, was technology we’ve already come to rely on to stay warm, like the auto-start feature or seat warmers in your car, or smart home thermostats that kick on when the temperature drops or can be controlled remotely from your phone. He reasoned why shouldn’t the same technology apply to your coat? (Fun fact: When Amarasiriwardena was a Boy Scout growing up in Amherst, he used to design his own outerwear. “I’ve been sewing clothes since I was 12,” he said.)
Other features designed into the garments include a sensor that detects when you pick it up off the rack and activates the heating system (it also automatically kicks up the heat when you step outside). Can’t or don’t want to pick up your coat? You can connect it to one of Amazon’s smart speakers and say, “Alexa, turn on my jacket” before heading out. (The garments will soon connect with Google Home, Siri, and Android devices.) Perhaps most impressively, the artificial intelligence algorithm built into the coat “learns” your ideal heat preference over time, ensuring you’re always toasty.
So how well do they work? Amarasiriwardena dropped by The Boston Globe offices to show off a demo and let me take one for a spin around the building. The jackets are slim-fitting and warm to start, and the fabric is both waterproof and has a degree of built-in stretch that moves more easily than your typical winter coat. The heating source is circular patch in the small of your back and two hand warmer patches in the jacket’s pockets; it uses an internal USB cable that connects to a power pack to charge the system (a typical charge lasts about a week, Amarasiriwardena said). And the coats, including the heating source, are machine washable.
I zipped one on and headed outside. It was an abnormally mild winter day, so it was hard to detect the heat. But I thought I felt a bit of a temperature change as I began moving. Turns out I was feeling a placebo effect: the back patch on the prototype wasn’t working as planned. But Amarasiriwardena loaned me his vest, which was working properly, and within a few seconds I felt the warmth on my back. I’d be willing to try it on again should the temperatures dip to subzero.
The Ministry team acknowledges that jackets with built-in heaters have been on the market for a while — the US Olympic team was even sporting some during the opening ceremonies in PyeongChang, South Korea. But they say no other outerwear on the market has the “brain” inside that responds to the wearer’s body temperature.
“We think technology should just blend into the background and be simple to use,” Amarasiriwardena said.
He said the company made the decision to go back to the fund-raising site to drum up interest in coats and as a way to offer proof of the concept to their manufacturer. They’re looking to raise $72,000 through early sales, with the jackets selling on Kickstarter for $295, and the vests for $195.