There was a time when a phone was just a device you used to contact someone. These days phones aren’t just used to talk to someone, they’re also devices that allow people to text, take photos, shoot video, get on the Internet, send e-mails, calculate a restaurant bill, provide a current location and keep time.
The multitasking concept has gone beyond electronic devices to clothing. For several years, researchers around the world have been working on melding electronic sensors into textiles. E-textiles have a host of applications, such as monitoring the wearer’s health conditions or simply for standout fashions.
In 2008, for example, American researchers developed a pair of pants for the elderly that was studded with sensors at the joints. The idea was that the electronics could monitor the wearer’s gait and determine if they were at higher risk of falling and injuring themselves. That same year, a fashion designer introduced a simple shift with butterflies that flutter their wings in response to changes in the wearer’s heartbeat.
Two teams of researchers in Spain and the United States have recently published papers on advances in the development of e-textiles. One group focused on the development of apparel and the accompanying wireless network that allows doctors and nurses to remotely monitor someone’s health signs within a hospital complex. The other group focused on finding a way to boost the clothing’s ability to store the information being collected.
“The demand for noninvasive and pervasive healthcare services that impact a person’s life as little as possible is increasingly dramatically,” wrote the team led by Jose Ignacio Moreno of the Carlos III University in Madrid, Spain in their report from the November print issue of the journal IEEE Transactions on Information Technology in Biomedicine. “Using e-textiles, wearable healthcare monitoring systems can be developed avoiding the use of cables wired around the patient as in current practice.”
Moreno and his colleagues came up with “smart shirts,” which they described as wearable, comfortable and most importantly washable. Tests were done with several cardiology patients wearing the shirts at a hospital in Madrid. Sensors in the shirts monitored the wearer’s body temperature, heartbeat, and movements and location.
After a certain amount of data had been collected, the information was then sent wirelessly to a database hospital staff who could check to monitor the patients. The results indicated that while the wireless network infrastructure isn’t quite up to simultaneously tracking multiple smart shirt wearers yet, the system can be easily adapted for various medical scenarios.
The Spanish team made sure that each smart shirt had a battery pack that lasted up to nine hours, but they weren’t quite able to embed all the electronics into the shirts. They plan to resolve that in a future version of the prototype. Wearable electronics face challenges in terms of power sources and memory storage. Unlike a cell phone, for example, T-shirts don’t have ports for power cords, and people won’t wear something that literally weighs them down.
Storing a lot of info
Focusing on the question of how to store a lot of information in a wearable garment, engineers at the Moffett Field, Calif.-based Nasa (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) Ames Research Center came up with a way to incorporate very thin wires of copper overlaid with platinum dots into textiles. Their report was published online Sept. 21 in the journal AIP Advances.
“The storage density will be determined by the number of cross points,” the researchers wrote. For example, by their calculations, if very thin copper wires crossed 10 billion times within a one square centimeter space, the result would be enough memory to store the equivalent of 2,000 MP3 song files.
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