Wearable “smart fabrics” present an alternative method for monitoring patients’ health to traditional wearable medical devices. A textile’s flexible nature and sensor integration into the material allow it to perform in a way that many traditional wearable health monitoring devices cannot — they can potentially communicate data from anywhere on the body, change shape to monitor physicality, and even conduct energy from movement to essentially power themselves.
Smart fabrics are a new breed of patient monitoring technology, and as a result, present design engineers with an array of challenges. For example, one type of textile might support a certain type of sensor more effectively, but is found to irritate the patient’s skin during testing; the replacement textile, while more comfortable, results in decreased sensor performance.
Nick Langston, senior manager of business development for TE Connectivity’s wearable team, points out an issue engineers will have in designing smart textiles, “The bridging of the hard world of electronics and the soft world of textiles remains a very significant challenge. There is no common language that electrical, mechanical, and textile engineers can share. Simply ask about tolerances and you’ll see how far apart the disciplines are. Mechanical engineers will talk in tenths of a millimeter; textile or apparel people will speak in quarter inch increments — a huge difference.”
So engineers will have to collaborate in a new way in order to reconcile the differences in designing each of these materials brings. Jeroen van den Brand, program manager of integration technologies for flexible systems at Holst Centre/imec, considers what will happen when these textiles get dirty: “The largest overall technological challenge is in making the integrated electronics washable. The washing machine is quite a harsh environment for electronics.”
Keeping Patients from Being ‘Too Wired’
Wearable technology’s wireless data transmitting capabilities let patients monitor their health without being connected to a machine (or potentially many, as the case may be) by wires that limit their mobility. This can make hospitalized patients in particular quite uncomfortable as they are limited to lying in one position on a hospital bed, confined by a mess of wires. So why not use textiles in the form of a “smart gown” to monitor them instead?
“Short term, ‘data quality’ that can be achieved with health patches, for example, will be higher than can be achieved with smart clothing,” says Brand. “In the case of the patch, there is permanent and intimate contact with the body, which guarantees better signal quality. For medical applications, patches would thus be preferred. Once improvements are made in smart clothing sensors, the medical field would be possible also.”
So perhaps “smart clothing” isn’t quite there yet in terms of effective hospital-grade health monitoring. But Langston is hopeful that they will soon make their debut in hospitals, and help to eliminate some of the concerns of keeping a patient stuck in a hospital bed. “The smart gown is really where smart textiles and textile-
integrated sensors want to go,” he says. “If we can deploy sensors in textiles, patients canrecover at home as they go about their normal business, and focus on recovery in a familiar environment, reducing or entirely eliminating the risk of healthcare-related infections.”
A Disruptor to the Wearables Market?
Wearable fitness monitoring is all the rage these days; the Apple Watch, in particular, has recently been touting its healthcare potential. There’s no question that these devices make keeping track of health convenient. But taking these ideas and making them even more “wearable” as clothing could instigate a market shift.
“Smart shirts for athletic applications are already capable of measuring heart rate, respiration, temperature, and even muscle activity,” says Langston. “Activity monitors, GPS watches, even certain smartwatch functions can and will move from wristbands to smart clothing or smartphones. These fundamental sensing capabilities allow a huge array of conditions to be monitored real-time through cloud-based applications. No need to have a patient visit a clinic to monitor them for a given period or even interrupt their normal routine to record their temperature — smart textiles will collect this data continuously without interruption.”
So the market may someday see something like an “iShirt” if smart textiles’ potential are fully realized. Brand takes a similar stance, incorporating patient concerns for aesthetics, as well: “The advantage of clothing is that we wear it anyhow. Thus, there is no need to wear an additional device. Moreover, if the integration is done in a proper way, the electronics can be invisible, nicely hidden behind a piece of textile.”
The Best Is Yet to Come
Smart textiles haven’t begun to blossom just yet, but they’re on their way to revolutionizing remote patient monitoring. Langston believes that the time is nigh for smart textiles’ popularity to flourish. “This is a great time for smart fabrics and textiles. We’re at the beginning of a huge ramp up in awareness by the general public. Just as wearables and IoT are moving past the peak of inflated expectations per Gartner’s hype cycle, so too are smart fabrics.”