E-textiles to monitor your health

Virginia Tech (VT) researchers have been busy developing efficient e-textiles -- electronic textiles and clothing with embedded wires and sensors -- for six years now. Their computerized clothing can monitor your movements, sensing if you're walking, running, standing, or sitting down. Of course, this kind of clothing has a wide range of applications. The Hokie Suit, which exists for 3 years, will lead to other garments which could measure when you're about to fall and your location, heart rate, blood pressure, temperature and a variety of other statistics. As the researchers have been focused more on computer engineering than aesthetics, don't expect to find e-clothing available in retail stores before several years.

Virginia Tech (VT) researchers have been busy developing efficient e-textiles -- electronic textiles and clothing with embedded wires and sensors -- for six years now. Their computerized clothing can monitor your movements, sensing if you're walking, running, standing, or sitting down. Of course, this kind of clothing has a wide range of applications. The Hokie Suit, which exists for 3 years, will lead to other garments which could measure when you're about to fall and your location, heart rate, blood pressure, temperature and a variety of other statistics. As the researchers have been focused more on computer engineering than aesthetics, don't expect to find e-clothing available in retail stores before several years.

Virginia Tech's Hokie Suit

You can see on the left a Hokie Suit worn with a harness for gait experiments in Thurmon Lockhart's Locomotion Research Laboratory (Photo by Rick Griffiths, VT). You'll find another informative image of the Hokie suit in a previous VT news article, "Computer Engineers are Developing Clothes that Monitor Health" (April 2004).

This project has been led by Associate Professor Tom Martin and Professor Mark Jones. They were helped by two second year graduate students, Justin Chong and Meghan Quirk. All of them are working for the VT's E-Textile Research Group.

Before going further, what are e-textiles? Here is the definition given by the E-Textile Research Group. "Electronic textiles (e-textiles) are fabrics that have electronics and interconnections woven into them, with physical flexibility and size that cannot be achieved with existing electronic manufacturing techniques. Components and interconnections are intrinsic to the fabric and thus are less visible and not susceptible to becoming tangled together or snagged by the surroundings. An e-textile can be worn in everyday situations where currently available wearable computers would hinder the user. E-textiles can also more easily adapt to changes in the computational and sensing requirements of an application, a useful feature for power management and context awareness."

Now that we know exactly what are e-textiles, it's time to look at what the researchers did. "One of the primary pieces they have built, dubbed the Hokie Suit, can sense the gait of the person wearing it, and is then able to detect change in speed and direction of motion. The wearer is able to move around naturally in the suit and the wires and sensors are woven in as part of the fabric. The sensors can then be removed and the suit with the wires can be washed. The steel used in the suit is so lightweight and fluid that it appears as fabric material rather than metal. 'We can tell whether you're walking, running, standing, or sitting down,' Martin said. 'One student could even figure out what dance you were doing.'"

And the data collected by the sensors embedded in the fabrics can be sent to various computer devices, such as a monitor checked by someone taking care of your health. This sounds good, even if we don't see this kind of clothing in our regular stores before years. Anyway, the researchers are already working on Hokie Suit 2.0. "They're making a more tightly woven garment in the form of a jumpsuit so it can be worn more easily. The jumpsuit has more benefits than the pants and vest; for example, it can sense when a person is laying down. The pants in the Hokie Suit were unable to tell the difference between lying down and having legs propped up."

For more information, you should read a long article written by Liz Crumbley for the Summer 2007 issue of the Virginia Tech Research Magazine, "Creating the future’s wearable, washable, potentially life-saving computers." The article contains several pictures about this research project, including the one above.

Finally, you should read a short article written by Kathleen Hom for The Washington Post, "'E-Textiles' May Give 'Custom Tailoring' New Meaning" (October 9, 2007) which has a photo showing how these sensors and wires are woven into the clothing.

Sources: Ashley Oliver, Virginia Tech Collegiate Times Online Edition, October 17, 2007; and various websites

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