Smart—and comfortable—clothes

Wearable technology requires pairing reliable functionality with a comfortable garment.

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What if a person’s heart rate, respiration and body mechanics could be monitored during various activities without being observed in person or via video feeds? What if that data could be collected and evaluated remotely?

Dr. Tom Martin, co-director of the Electronic Textiles Lab at Virginia Tech, is building new smart textile applications based on technology he previously developed at the lab for that purpose. Since 2001 Martin has been working on clothing items with computer networks woven into the fabric that can sense the motions of the wearer, classify the person’s activity and monitor physiological measurements related to the activity.

Limitations of the existing technology include the necessity of a special lab to recreate the environment and entering existing data specific to the wearer before the activities can be classified. The project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, is aimed at automatically classifying the wearer’s activity in a variety of environments. “The new ways of classifying activities will mean the garment doesn’t have to be calibrated to the individual,” Martin says. “If you put the garment on and it fits you, it should automatically classify your activities.”

Collaborative work with the University of Minnesota’s Wearable Technology Lab is underway.

Martin is working on the project with Dr. Lucy Dunne, who teaches apparel studies and design at the University of Minnesota. While Martin works on the classifications scenes, Dunne is developing garments that people will actually wear. “The commercial version is fairly expensive and it’s a tight-fitting cat suit, which most people don’t want to wear,” Martin says. “What we’re trying to do with our project is see how accurately we can classify activities using a loose-fitting garment, and [do so] relatively inexpensively.”

“Though this technology isn’t currently being developed for the military, I could see it being used for that at some point,” Martin says. “It would be particularly useful during training, when you want to determine how fatigued a soldier is during specific training activities.”

Research focuses on integrating technology that’s truly wearable.

Dunne presented her research concerning wearable technology at IFAI’s Advanced Textiles Conference in Orlando, Fla., in October 2013, specifically focusing on development of textile- and garment-integrated sensors for monitoring body parameters related to health and activity, with an emphasis on the variables related to human comfort and performance. 

She divided the challenges facing wearable sensing into its system needs and user needs. System needs would address factors that affect the quality of sensor data; lifespan, durability and reliability of the device and garment; and the manufacture and cost of the device and garment.

User needs address factors that affect comfort (both physical and psychological) and useability. The lab has conducted extensive research into different types of stitching to best integrate sensors.

The lab’s website describes its novel motion-capture based method to measure the movement of garments relative to the body surface. “By tightly controlling garment parameters and properties, we can measure the effect of design variables on garment movement,” it reports.

Dunne’s research with Virginia Tech’s E-Textiles Laboratory project focuses on the development of textile-integrated body sensors and body-sensing garments “that facilitate annotating clinical ambulatory monitoring parameters (blood pressure, joint movement) with contextual activity data,” according to lab information.

The Wearable Technology lab research focuses on the intersection between apparel and new technology, seeking to translate technological potential into the everyday world. The lab is part of the Wearable Product Design Center at the University of Minnesota’s College of Design.

The Virginia Tech E-Textiles Lab is developing “smart” clothing that appears and feels normal but that can sense its own shapes, the wearer’s motions and the positions of the sensing elements, with a primary focus on medical applications.

Sigrid Tornquist is a freelance writer and editor and a regular contributor to the Review and Advanced Textiles Source. Janet Preus is senior editor of Advanced Textiles Source and the Review.

Safety and Technical Products (S+TP), a division of IFAI, represents the interests of the textile industry in safety, protective, interactive, medical and other high-tech applications. Visit www.safetyfabrics.com.

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