Textile Sensors: Wearable Smart Garments Are Driving The Quantified Self

Image from Hexoskin on Indiegogo

The role clothes play in our lives is rapidly changing. Innovation in textile sensor technology is pushing the limits of what our clothes will be able to do for us, beyond providing protection, cover, and style, though recent innovations in phase changing materials and other areas of fiber science will allow them to do this better too. The future is rapidly approaching, and in it, textiles will measure your vitals, generate power for other devices, and form complex electrical nano-circuits invisible to the naked eye.

We have seen several interesting company innovations and innovations in academia in the smart textiles space, many of course geared toward athletics and the high performance market.  Among the more publicly facing companies:

  • MC10 collaborated with Reebok to develop Checklight, a skull-cap that monitors impact for contact sports, and has developed several interesting uses for flexible circuits independently.
  • Heapsylon, a company we featured,  has developed textile sensor technology that provide levels of data previously unimaginable from smart socks (with the average runner putting 10-20 G’s of pressure on their feet, you can imagine the challenge they face to produce sensors that hold up) to drive applications in driving peak athletic performance and healthcare.
  • Vivonoetics , a San Diego based company focuses on physiological monitoring sensor systems, supporting software, and analysis services. It sold a LifeShirt system that was capable of tracking several vital signs, and today the company’s software supports its VivoSensor and other manufacturers’ sensor devices.
  • NuMetrex, makes wearable sensors directly into clothing.
  • New Zealand-based Footfalls & Heartbeats has developed a manufacturing process that uses nanotechnology within the textile structure that acts as a sensor. This can have potentially revolutionary impact on non-invasive wireless monitoring of vital signs in hospitals and beyond. (The Company has secured funding from the Global From Day One program, Wellington’s Sparkbox Ventures, the Government-backed New Zealand Venture Investment Fund, and private investors.).
  • Carre Technologies is also innovating with textile sensors; its Hexoskin product targets the athletic performance market and the tech behind this product shows the forefront of consumer textile sensors today. A team of young electrical and software engineers founded the Montreal based company in 2006.  Their recently launched product, Hexoskin, is a smart fabric undershirt capable of tracking breathing rate, heart rate, and other activity. It can also make derivative estimates of other vital signs and supports real-time monitoring, which is powered by Bluetooth connectivity with phones and other devices. Although Hexoskin in starting by targeting trainers and elite athletes, it has several other applications and much broader potential. It has grabbed the attention of university researchers for its ability to gather sensor data. Also, the Canadian Space Agency has been working with Hexoskin to develop a real-time health monitoring system for astronauts. Additionally, Hexoskin has licensed technology to clothing manufacturers in a hope to bring smart health tracking down to the everyday household. Future innovation in textile design and sensor incorporation will make this type of application possible.
  • Intelligent Textiles has a prototype that allows power and data to be transmitted cloth when squeezed and is developing this tech through a British military contract.

Academia too is also driving enormous innovation in smart textiles, contributing greatly to pushing the boundaries of innovation around textile-based sensors.  National Geographic featured the Textiles Nanotechnology Laboratory at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and the Alan G. MacDiarmid NanoTech Institute at the University of Texas at Dallas for their work with energy harvesting and textile sensors. Other leaders in academia at Cornell, such as Margaret Frey and Huiju Park, are working on interfacing fiber science and nanotechnology and developing smart clothes.

What all of these examples of companies and researchers innovating in the space point to, especially when you look at the price of finished goods,  is that although technology enabled clothing is not new, many of these companies and others are quickly raising the bar for what high end athletic performance minded consumers can expect from their clothing by innovating and improving on core textile sensor technology, sensor fusion, and the algorithms to interpret the data our clothing provides.

Having said that, if the reality is to measure up to the hype, the following must occur: (1) The technology needs to be cheaper in order to succeed with average consumers, though certainly economies of scale and improved design will drive costs down;  (2) Power/energy consumption must be optimized; and (3)  New design driven form factors need to emerge to capture consumer desire, meaning there must be constant collaboration between design leaders and researcher/innovators.

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