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You Need Some Smarter Clothing

BY KIM BELLARD

Much as I’d love to write about Instagram’s feud with the Kardashians over changes to the Instagram feed, and how that and proposed changes to Facebook’s feed reflect Meta’s efforts to combat TikTok’s growing influence, I’ve already given healthcare plenty of warnings about TikTok.  Instead, I’ll write about something else that the Kardashians care about: fashion.

Well, not fashion per se, but clothing. If the old, sexist statement was “clothes make the man,” then soon we may be saying “clothes make your health.” 

The Washington Post got my attention when it reported last week about robotic clothing, because, as anyone who has been reading me for long knows, I am fascinated by robots and their role in healthcare.  One of the advances the article discussed works on “smart fluid textiles” done by Dr. Thanh Nho Do and colleagues at the University of New South Wales Medical Robotics lab.

The UNSW press released described the efforts as:

Engineers have developed a new class of smart textiles that can shape-shift and turn a two-dimensional material into 3D structures…These artificial muscles, which are surrounded by a helical coil of traditional fibres, can be programmed to contract or expand into a variety of shapes depending on its initial structure. 

Dr. Do said: “These ‘smart fluid textiles’ take the advantage of hydraulic pressure and add the fast response, lightweight, high flexibility and small size of soft artificial muscles. In effect, we have given our smart textiles the expansion and contraction ability in the exact same way as human muscle fibres.”  

Here’s a video:

The team sees all sorts of health-related applications:

We propose it can be used to develop new medical compression devices, for example, that are low-profile and lead to better medical outcomes. Patients with poor blood circulation could benefit from smart garments that contract to apply desired pressure to superficial veins and assist blood supply.

Athletes also use compression garments to recover at a faster rate and reduce muscle soreness after training, and our smart textile has potential to be utilised in that area.

We envision our material could be used to develop soft exoskeletons to enable people with disabilities to walk again or augment the human performance.

I mean, why wear one of those bulky robot exoskeletons that other researchers have developed when you can wear a nice pair of pants made from smart fluid textiles?  As the study’s first author Phuoc Thien Phan bragged, “Normal robots cannot change their shape or start off as a two-dimensional flat material to be able to access small spaces and then morph into a three-dimensional object.”

The Post spoke to Yoel Fink, a materials science professor at MIT who is working on related efforts.  He sees robotic clothing as a new frontier: “We’re sort of at the pre-iPhone announcement [stage]. It’s very, very exciting.”  He went on to explain: “Software is going to determine what services you’re receiving, and that thing is going to look like your T-shirt and your pants that you’re wearing right now.”

Dr. Fink’s team has done work on programable fibers and flexible fiber batteries that can be woven into textiles.   Earlier this year, another MIT team working with Dr. Fink, led by Wei Yan, developed “acoustical fabric,” which works like a microphone.  It can pick up external sounds, like conversations, or internal sounds, like heartbeats.  Think wearable hearing aids or for continuous vital signs tracking.  

Dr. Yan, who is now an assistant professor at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, believes: 

Wearing an acoustic garment, you might talk through it to answer phone calls and communicate with others. In addition, this fabric can imperceptibly interface with the human skin, enabling wearers to monitor their heart and respiratory condition in a comfortable, continuous, real-time, and long-term manner.

This is important, because, as Dr. Fink poetically told Tech Briefs

Our fibers or fabrics capture, in some ways, the soundtrack of our lives. Every time your heart beats, every time you take a breath, every time you bend your arm, every time you walk, every time a joint moves, every time blood flows, there’s sound. The fabrics capture all of that. All that sound gets into a fabric and is lost during the day.

The military is paying attention.  There is already a DoD program SMART ePANTS (someone there has a sense of humor!), “ePANTS” standing for “Electrically Powered And Networked Textile Systems.  It aims to have smart textiles that can collect, analyze, and transmit information real-time. 

Another team at MIT, led by Xuanhe Zhao in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, is working on something that isn’t clothing per se, but is something you wear — an ultrasound sticker.

It is described as “a stamp-sized device that sticks to skin and can provide continuous ultrasound imaging of internal organs for 48 hours…the devices produced live, high-resolution images of major blood vessels and deeper organs such as the heart, lungs, and stomach.”  Forget needing an ultrasound machine, much less a technician to operate it; you’d just wear these stickers, providing live, real-time images. The next goal is to make it wireless as well, adding to the convenience. 

“We envision a few patches adhered to different locations on the body, and the patches would communicate with your cellphone, where AI algorithms would analyze the images on demand,” Dr. Zhao said. “We believe we’ve opened a new era of wearable imaging: With a few patches on your body, you could see your internal organs.” 

 Here’s their video:

And it’s not just fabrics.  Researchers at The Ohio State University have developed a “smart necklace.”  It is a battery-free, wireless biochemical sensor that can analyze sweat to monitor glucose levels, with expectations that it will eventually track other biomarkers in sweat. Co-author Jinghua Li says: “The next generation of biosensors will be so highly bio-intuitive and non-invasive that we’ll be able to detect key information contained in a person’s body fluids.”    

Dr. Li believes the sensors will eventually become thin enough to be placed into our – you guessed it! – clothing.  

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Dr. Fink thinks that current wearables, such as in smartwatches, have limited adoption possibilities, because “I think we prefer to walk around with the least amount of stuff that we can,” as he told Tech Briefs.  Instead, he is a proponent of what he terms Fabric Computing.  “The days of the computer or phone in a glass box in our pocket or pocketbook are numbered,” he predicts. “The future of computing is in fabrics.”       

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