Wearables are evolving the textiles industry, but if you cannot see the technology, can you believe it?
THE best technology is invisible, but now it can be flexible, washable, lightweight and comfortable too. Submerging a smart gadget in water may be the last thing you would consider doing, but what if that product was a smart textile that was built to withstand those conditions? For instance, it could be in the form of a top that could be put in the washing machine and still work as normal.
The function of textiles is evolving from offering protection from the world’s elements, to reacting to external stimuli or changes in the environment without human intervention.
In other words, textiles can now communicate with technology to transform themselves, generate energy, conduct heat and monitor body functions.
The exploitation of these smart materials will allow users to interact with their environment and communicate data through their own clothing.
Business and Energy Secretary, Greg Clark, recently announced a £229 million government investment in the development of such cutting- edge advanced materials. The money will go towards the development of the next generation of affordable light- weight composite materials.
Although this technology already exists in smart devices such as the Fitbit and Polar chest strap, Mark Pedley, CIO and founder of Smartlife, said: “We’re trying to step away from the paradigm that when we go into sports monitoring you need a high-tech embedded system. We try to do it discreetly and invisible, by making normal garments and just putting our tech into it.
“We create textile soft sensors, put them into garments, and the data that we collect using those garments gives us insight into people’s lifestyles, health and wellbeing. I am sure that there is nobody else where we are that is doing this.”
The team of scientists and engineers has developed a patent, which was originally purchased from the University of Manchester in 2004. By combining technology and textiles, the business has successfully been able to create several products that are set to eliminate the bulky and restrictive health and fitness monitors that are already on the market.
Smartlife’s lightweight garments look like ordinary sports compression tops or bras, but the technology hidden in the stitching is rock solid and can return clinical quality data in even the most aggressive of situations.
High intensity sports such as running and cycling put immense amounts of pressure on muscles, and the only way to get the most out of your body is to monitor activity during training.
These wearables are geared for the mass market and set to transform the sporting industry.
“Essentially, you have two sensors, one on either side of the heart. They are 6cm long silver thread knitted sensors that are looking for the electrical signals coming through the skin.
“When they collect the electrical activity produced by muscles, the impulses run to the soft centre where a small piece of electronics called the brain is placed. The brain automatically connects to a smart phone and the data collected is wirelessly sent to it and stored on an app.
“The app can be personalised for whoever is looking at it, so it can be sent directly to medical experts, personal trainers, or simply just be tracked by the user themselves to observe how they are performing. The thing about Fitbit is that there is scope to cheat by moving around, but a garment responds to your whole body, rather than just the movement of an arm or leg.”
Juniper research found that while 19 million fitness devices are likely to be sold this year, that number is predicted to grow to 110 million in 2018. However, who would pay for branded sportswear and a monitoring device, when they could get technology infused soft textiles for a similar price?
The potential of wearables is yet to be determined, but according to PwC’s Health Research Institute and Consumer Intelligence Series, more than half of people believe that the average life expectancy will grow by 10 years because of wearable- enabled monitoring of our vital signs.
“We are developing a wellbeing garment called the health vest. It is made from Marino wool, it is lightweight and the same fit as a normal singlet. It is for people who have had a cardiovascular incident or problem, and the key is that it is worn as an undergarment and looks just like a normal vest,” said Pedley.
This garment means patients can go about their everyday lives, while medical professionals receive clinical grade data about their health from their surgery. This can free up GP appointments and take pressure off the NHS, as there is no need to contact the patient if the data is displaying positive figures.
The technology can also alert medics if there is a problem and ensure the correct treatment is given as soon as possible.
The patient using the vest can also get involved with and keep track of their own health, and translate it to family and friends to put them at ease, which would give them a psychological advantage.
The app could be personalised to display the data in a traffic light system, where the green light indicates the measurements are good and red suggests bad, or however the individual desires.
Tim Harper, of Tim Harper Graphene Investment and Consulting, said: “At the moment, you just go into the doctors and they take some heart rate and blood pressure measurements, but those may not be completely accurate because you might have just had a strong cup of coffee or you might be a bit nervous about going to see the doctor.
“If you can use wearables to take long term measurements, it would allow you to get a far more accurate picture of someone’s overall health, which then when combined with things like analytics, lead to far more accurate diagnosis.”
‘If you monitor the way elderly people move, you can predict the likelihood of them having a fall semi-accurately.’
Integrating multiple sensors into the same garment would mean that heart rate, respiration, perspiration, blood sugar and all sorts of things could be tested all in one go. The data could then be crosschecked over the past month to determine what is normal and what is an anomaly for that patient, to ensure that all medical advice is tailored accordingly.
“This could be hours or days in advance and gets you into the area of preventative medicine. Rather than waiting for something to happen and any damage gets repaired very expensively, can you intervene earlier to stop that event from happening?
“If you monitor the way elderly people move, you can predict the likelihood of them having a fall semi-accurately.
“If you monitor things like pulse rates long term, it gives you quite a good indicator for if someone is likely to have a stroke and once again, you can do something to prevent it. This is far cheaper for the NHS and far better for the patient.”
These advances in textiles and technology could transform the way patients are treated and even stop preventable incidents from occurring in the first place.
However, there is still a long way to go due to the issues of privacy as although hospitals, pharmacies and dentists are typically among the most trusted of places, the consumer owns the data they collect and should be clear about what will be done with it. For instance, it could be a human rights disaster for the individual if any of this health data collected got into the hands of an insurance company, or a potential employer.
“There are a number of issues that we will have to work through with wearables, but because the application and the market are so compelling, it will happen over time. I am 100 per cent confident that smart textiles will transform healthcare.”
As consumers begin introducing wearable devices into their lives, both the economy and the healthcare system will undergo significant changes and regulations, but perhaps this revolution has been a long time coming.
This post is the first feature in a three part series entitled, ‘The Textiles of Tomorrow.’ The series was written and designed in the style New Scientist for my Print Journalism Final Major Project in May 2017. Here’s the end product: