Staying healthy by dressing smart

From: Smartex
Published: Wed Mar 16 2005

The Wearable Health Care System (WEALTHY) IST project just completed 30 months of research and development to prototype technologies at the heart of smart fabrics. Smart fabrics incorporate functional fibres and yarns into the weave, allowing researchers to develop many useful sensors for a wide variety of applications.

Intelligent use of microelectronics allows scientists and engineers to extract useful data from very simple inputs. For example, the WEALTHY project integrated temperature sensors in the armpit and shoulder of their garment to register core and skin temperature.

Europe is currently a leader in R&D on smart fabrics and interactive textiles, a market that analyst firm Venture Development Corporation believes will boom in the coming years: at $300m in 2003 the overall market growth is estimated between 11 per cent and 28 per cent through 2008 ($720 m in 2008).

Towards commercialisation
In the coming months the WEALTHY project will send prototypes of its smart clothing to selected stores around Europe, in part to acquire vital data from users.

"It's a validation process," says Dr Rita Paradiso, research director of Italian R&D company Smartex and coordinator of the WEALTHY project. "We have working prototypes and we want to get feedback from potential users."

"I think it will be about three years before full commercialisation is possible," says Paradiso. "We are currently working on another project, MyHeart with Philips, that should develop a commercial product for heart monitoring in the next three years."

Once a product is available, there will be plenty of applications. The clothing can monitor vital health data, communicate with remote health centres and present data in a variety of formats for further analysis by doctors and researchers.

Many potential users
So who will benefit from such clever clothes? Soldiers under extreme conditions in the field, athletes, personnel in high-risk jobs like firefighting, or the sick and vulnerable, will all benefit from the health data these clothes can provide.

Doctors will be able to remotely monitor a patient's health statistics and condition, useful for observing at risk populations, such as the elderly or people with cardio-vascular disease, for example. Monitoring the health of newborn babies is another promising application.

Athletesí performance and vital data can be captured during exercise or competitions. This information can keep athletes safe, and also help them to improve performance.

The system can also be used as part of treatment, for example monitoring people undergoing physical therapy and rehabilitation. Sleep apneas, where people stop breathing in their sleep, is another application, or for people who drive long distances.

"Really there are a vast number of applications, though the garment would need to be customised for each task," says Paradiso.

Simple properties, advanced tasks
All these applications come from using the simple electrical properties of electrodes and other simple circuits to mine rich data seams. Rather than overloading the clothes with weighty gadgets, WEALTHY employed the ingenuity of engineers and scientists to allow lightweight devices do the heavy lifting.

For example, in the WEALTHY system one prototype respiration-sensing device uses impedance to derive the respiration of the wearer. The device uses four electrodes placed on a thoracic position. The two external are injecting high frequency current (50 KHz) and the other ones are capturing the voltage variation caused by thoracic impedance change. The output signal is modulated by changes in the body impedance accompanying the respiratory cycle.

WEALTHY's prototype contains tiny sensors that can collect information about the wearer's respiration, core and surface skin temperature, position (standing or lying down) and movement. What's more, the garment can take advantage of Europe's extensive mobile phone network to communicate the data with remote sensors, thanks to the integration of a miniaturised GPRS transmitter.

This transmitter could, in a future version, use emerging location-based services (LBS) to transmit the exact location of the wearer to emergency services or rescue teams, meaning a faster response to accidents and a better chance of survival for the victim.

"There were some major challenges," says Paradiso. "In the beginning I was really worried that all the different electrodes and sensors would interfere with each other and create noise, interfering with the sensors' signals, but we over came that problem. Now we need to deal with noise created by movement."

The WEALTHY consortium includes some of Europe's leading companies in fabric manufacturing, software development, healthcare science and sensor research, like Milior, a major international manufacturer of advanced fabrics.

"We have a broad range of expertise from our partners and they provide invaluable input and experience when we encounter a problem. For example, when we hit a snag on fabric design I could go to the R&D department of Milior to get help solving the problem," says Paradiso.

The advantage of the WEALTHY prototype is the wide range of data it can capture, it's ability to transmit this information to remote monitoring centres, and it's comfort. "It has to be comfortable, like underwear really, if people are going to use it," says Paradiso.

Further developments for the suit are in planning, such as an acoustic wave sensor, which could be used to measure the wearer's pulse, for example.

In future, clothes will have all the more reason to be smart.

Contact: Tara Morris, +32-2-2861985,
Company: Smartex
Contact Name: Rita Paradiso
Contact Email:
Contact Phone: +39-050-754350

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