Wearable electronics are becoming more and more popular. But another kind of innovation is evolving: wearable fabrics with built-in electronics and sensors.
Wearable electronics including Apple Watch, Fitbit, and other vital-sign monitors are becoming more and more popular. But another kind of innovation is evolving: wearable fabrics with built-in electronics and sensors. These fabrics can be used to create clothing to monitor our vital signs. What opportunities and challenges will these innovations bring?
As the internet of things continues to grow exponentially, wearables have emerged as the latest IoT frontier because of their enticing potential applications. Wearables’ benefits include convenience, ease of use, and real-time service. However, there are also daunting design and development challenges to overcome if we are serious about expanding beyond the current applications.
Conventional health-care wearables: Apple, Fitbit
Wearable IoT is divided into four categories: health, recreation, tracking and localization, and safety. So far, the recreation-oriented wearables offered by companies like Apple and Fitbit help users monitor their weight and how much they exercise. Medical-grade wearables that enable doctors to monitor patients remotely fall into the first category. But wearables can do much more. They can also provide emergency care to the elderly, monitor babies, and help collect data during clinical trials.
The new wearables
Less obvious and more comfortable
The new wearables will offer users more choices beyond wear in a wristwatch manner, a plus for those who prefer not to advertise their use of a wearable. Embedding an IoT device in other accessories such as rings, bracelets, belts, and eyeglasses makes wearable use less obvious.
Built-in sensors in the fabrics
The least intrusive way of embedding IoT sensors is building them into the fabric of shirts, pants, socks, or shoes. Garments that fold and stretch to fit the body can contain electronic components that collect data. Data generated from skin or sweat in contact with the fabric could include the wearer’s heart rate, blood pressure, blood glucose level, blood oxygen level, body temperature, and activity. For example, medical technology startup Rhaeos has recently developed a wearable for noninvasive monitoring of patients suffering from an accumulation of brain fluids. Also, wearables can be used to monitor, track, and protect those dearest to a consumer.
Sudden infant death syndrome is a new parent’s nightmare. It is a relatively rare but critical phenomenon. On top of that, its cause remains unknown. Most, if not all, parents have gotten up in the middle of the night to check on their newborn’s breathing, adding to their exhaustion and sleep deprivation. Having the baby wear a shirt made with IoT fabric and tracking the infant’s breathing via an app can help parents relax and sleep better than they would if they had to rely on a conventional baby monitor. The app alerts parents to abnormal or interrupted breathing. New York-based startup Nanit has developed such a wearable for new babies and their bleary-eyed parents.
IoT fabric can also be used to track the elderly, hospital patients, and kids. A GPS tracker in the fabric can send an alert, for example, when a patient with dementia has wandered off or when a teen has not arrived at a destination at the expected time. This kind of wearable can also be used in high-risk settings, such as construction sites or mountaineering expeditions, where everyone’s whereabouts must be accounted for.
Because clothes made from IoT fabric have numerous contact points with the body, it is also possible to include more functionality into the system than other types of wearables allow. For example, instead of just monitoring the user’s heart rate and activity level, an IoT shirt can obtain additional blood-oxygen and glucose-level data. This way, a more holistic and potentially more accurate observation of the user emerges.
Being on the new frontier is undoubtedly exciting, but it is also challenging. In addition to a flexible and easy-to-use human-machine interface, IoT fabric needs to be hardy, accurate, and self-sufficient.
Hardiness: Vibrations, collisions, everyday wear and tear; machine-washable
Once someone puts on, for example, a shirt made with IoT fabric, that shirt — or any other IoT apparel — will experience the same vibrations, collisions, and everyday wear and tear that the user experiences. Therefore, the fabric needs to be toughened to stay intact and functional, more so if it is machine-washable. As ruggedizing an IoT device typically involves adding protective material around the device, it is unclear how this strategy can be applied to IoT fabric without affecting its flexibility or wearability.
Accuracy: How to ensure consistent and uniform contact with the patient during data collection
The wear and tear on the IoT fabric may also affect the accuracy of the data that it collects. Installing more sensors or different types of sensors will help ensure data accuracy. With additional and varied sensors, different types of data can be cross-referenced and supported.
Multiple sensors can also lengthen product life, enabling data collection and analytics to continue even if one or more sensors stop working. However, embedding multiple sensors in the fabric will drive up design costs and complexity.
Data collection: Sensors need to be small
An additional challenge is being able to include multiple sensors in the fabric without affecting the fabric’s texture. Miniaturizing the sensors may be a way to make them more transparent to the wearer. However, the sensors must also perform so as to collect and transfer data continuously. The struggle to balance performance and form factor could cause development bottlenecks.
Energy supply: Solar; harvesting body heat, motion
Finally, everything that the IoT fabric does needs to be supported by a steady supply of power. IoT fabric faces the same problem that other IoT devices have, i.e., how to consume as little energy as efficiently as possible while maintaining a high level of performance. Using a lower-power microcontroller unit with a sleep mode may be an excellent way to conserve energy. On the other hand, obtaining energy without having to swap out expired batteries can also help energy efficiency.
Much research is going into energy harvesting from body heat and motion or vibration. However, adding the capacity to harvest energy from the environment and supply it to the fabric’s IoT system will increase design, development, and production complexity.
More and more seniors worldwide will continue to drive demand for new wearable technology. In the same way that Bluetooth baubles are leaving their mark on the jewelry segment, wearables could well impact the clothing sector of the fashion industry.
Designing IoT fabrics and scaling their production will be incredibly difficult, but nobody can argue that it wouldn’t be worthwhile. After all, that effort will enable fabrics to bring the power of the IoT to everyday life. Potential applications of such technology are limited only by one’s imagination.
This article was originally published on EE Times Europe.