The future of clothes could save your life


Electronic devices that track our heart rate, sleep cycles, and workouts are everywhere these days.

But what if instead of putting on a FitBit or Apple Watch every day, you could don a t-shirt or pants that instantly track health metrics as you move?

This is the future that designers of electronic textiles, or intelligent textiles, want to build.

Fashion trials and errors: Smart textiles embed flexible electronic components in clothing to give them tracking and monitoring capabilities similar to smartwatches. However, today’s market does not have the same type of demand as for the devices we wear on our wrists.

In November, the CTO of the fashion brand H&M announcement that the company will explore ways for its products to monitor heart rate, hydration levels, and even connect to cellular networks. Previously, the company had devised a concept for a smart jacket that could mimic a hug, and invited customers to vote on whether or not it would go into production. It hasn’t generated enough interest from potential buyers.

Another high-profile release came in 2017 from Levi’s, when the company teamed up with Google’s Jacquard Project to create a smart jacket with a dongle integrated in one of the pockets. Holders can control their phone remotely thanks to a type of conductive fabric; The cover responds to touches and swipes to do things like answer calls and play music. At launch, the jacket was priced at $ 350, with a new release in 2019 bringing the price down to $ 198- $ 248.

Follow the trends: As the fashion industry resolves its problems, another sector is experiencing increased interest in electronic textiles: healthcare. Some startups already have products on the market for patients with chronic conditions like diabetes. And clothing with built-in detection systems for things like heart irregularities can provide people with information to prevent future illnesses.

IEEE Pulse reports that there is a industry-wide change towards the manufacture of electronic clothing that can be used for health care purposes. Wearing clothes is part of everyday life and designers see it as a real opportunity to improve current clothing with technology that can seamlessly monitor health.

“Because we’re so used to the ubiquity, comfort and practicality of traditional textile products, the idea is that we can take that ubiquity and these interface properties, and apply them alongside the functional benefits.” additional electronics’ E-textiles expert James Hayward told IEEE Pulse.

Why is this important: Electronic clothing that monitors a wearer’s health could be a game-changer for people with chronic health conditions. The clothes, in theory, would be more comfortable to wear than most medical devices, which may encourage some patients to monitor their condition more regularly. This could lead to earlier detection of health risks.

A traditional heart monitor, for example, requires a patient to attach sensors directly to the skin. But with smart clothes, you can just put on a t-shirt in the morning and all the sensing technology you need is there. “This is the overall selling point of the entire e-textile movement at the moment”, Hayward told IEEE Pulse.

Current smart solutions: It is not uncommon for diabetics to develop circulation problems and nerve damage over time. And that can lead to higher risks of things like foot ulcers, which, if left untreated, can lead to infection and even amputation. This is because patients lose sensation in their extremities, which increases the risk that foot injuries will go undetected and treated for too long.

But a San Francisco-based startup called Mermaid created a sock with integrated electronics that can measure the temperature of the foot and send information to a smartphone app. If an area appears to be gaining heat, it could be a sign of inflammation – signaling that an injury may have occurred. The patient can also send information to their doctor, which can help determine a course of treatment.

Another startup that aims to provide early detection of health issues is Neopenda. The company has created a portable infant vital signs monitor called the neoGuard to tackle the high rates of infant mortality around the world. Doctors can receive alerts from monitors when a baby needs care, as indicated by heart rate, temperature, and respiratory data. This is particularly useful in emerging countries where access to traditional healthcare is limited because the device is Bluetooth enabled, so it does not require internet access.

While the device itself looks a bit like a smartwatch that clips around a baby’s head, it’s small enough to fit. inside a fabric hat it looks a little more modest.

On the horizon: The creation of any type of medical device implies crossing numerous regulatory obstacles, which partly explains why there are not yet more solutions on the market. Some devices are also not washable, which is an important aspect of creating clothes that can be worn regularly.

But universities and businesses around the world are investing in the search for smart textiles that can monitor certain conditions. For example, researchers at the Taiwan Industrial Technology Research Institute launched a textile called iSmartWear at the Consumer Electronics Show 2021 which can detect heart activity without directly touching the wearer.

The goal would be to monitor abnormal heart rhythms in patients at home or in hospital. A similar project was announced in 2018 when electronics textile company Myant, Inc. in partnership with the Mayo Clinic to make smart wearables to detect atrial fibrillation. Spotting these irregularities early could help prevent strokes or heart failure.

While still in their infancy, smart textiles offer a glimpse into the future where preventative care is entrusted directly to the patient – or, to the body, to be more precise.

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