The stretchy garments, which feature integrated electronic sensors, could be used to monitor vital singles like temperature, heart rate, and respiratory rate.
MIT’s researchers believe that this type of sensing garment could be used for monitoring patients in both home and clinical settings, as well as potentially being used to monitor the vital signs of people working in demanding settings such as athletes on a track or astronauts in space. According to the research team, the garments would be comfortable enough for day-to-day use.
Embedded Sensors Enable Real-Time Monitoring
The primary goal of the research team was to create a garment similar to the clothes we usually wear and then incorporate removable electronic sensors so that the garment simply acts as a passive element that can be laundered.
For their study, the research team designed a prototype that had 30 temperature sensors and an accelerometer that is able to measure the end-users movement, heart rate, and respiratory rate. The sensors consist of long, flexible strips that are surrounded by epoxy and then woven into narrow channels in the fabric. These channels feature very small openings that expose the sensors to the skin.
The garment itself is made from a polyester blend with moisture-wicking properties, similar to non-wicking activewear t-shirts. In 2019 several of the researchers spent time at a factory in Shenzhen, China, to experiment with mass-producing the material.
“From the outside it looks like a normal T-shirt, but from the inside, you can see the electronic parts which are touching your skin,” said Canan Dagdeviren, the LG Electronics Career Development Assistant Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at MIT. “It compresses on your body, and the active parts of the sensors are exposed to the skin.”
Electronics embedded within a piece of clear film. image credit: MIT Media Lab.
The prototype shirt was tested by the researchers on people exercising at a gym, enabling them to monitor changes in vital signs. Because the 30 sensors cover a large surface area on the body, the researchers can observe how temperature changes in different parts of the body and how these changes correlate.
According to the research team, the garment is capable of transmitting data wirelessly to a smartphone app where it can be remotely monitored. “You don’t need to go to the doctor or do a video call,” Dagdeviren says. “Through this kind of data collection, I think doctors can make better assessments and help their patients in a better way.”
Dagdeviren also says that the shirts can be easily manufactured in different sizes. She currently plans to begin developing other garments such as trousers and is also working on incorporating additional sensors that can monitor other health indicators.
Although wearable sensors embedded in clothing are nothing new and have been tried before, MIT’s version appears to be the most promising in terms of its flexibility and lack of disruption to the wearer. In the future, real-time health data monitoring could be used to inform the development of improved pandemic modelling, too.