OXFORDSHIRE, United Kingdom — According to Dr Tom Waller, who runs Lululemon’s research and development arm, Whitespace, touch is one of the least understood of the five senses. And yet, touch can be transformative.
“Not just the brain, but the entire nervous system and behavioural psychology, is directly related to this thing called the science of feel,” said Waller on the stage of VOICES, BoF’s annual gathering for big thinkers hosted in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate. “There are tiny nerve endings — 3,000 pressure sensors — that work as motor controls. When you know about those, then you can start to think about hacking them. If you can hack touch, then you can start to achieve some really, really interesting things.”
Many of Lululemon’s innovations are around material. After all, the Vancouver-based athleticwear purveyor is best known for its yoga leggings, which come in a range of materials and levels of compression. (Some are tight-knit, others are ultra-soft and roomy, depending on the consumer’s preference.) “It’s the human part of experience that I’m a little bit obsessed with,” he said. “We build a lot of yoga pants. They feel pretty good, right? Have you ever wondered why? I am obsessed with understanding why.”
To be sure, Waller and his team are thinking beyond the weave. For instance, instead of creating a running bra that restricted movement altogether, they set out to build a support garment that still offers the comfort of something less constricting. After two years of research, the $98 Enlite bra hit the market in the spring of 2017.
But feel is not always about comfort. For instance, Waller says that beach volleyball players frequently adjust their tops and bottoms while they’re on the court — ”what we would call a product failure” — but for these athletes, it offers a sense of security. “Humans are really interesting people,” he said. “They need ritual.”