The Future of Condition-Specific 'Smart' Clothing

A look at the shift from wrist-worn to body-worn tech

Man and woman running together in city using fitness activity trackers
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More than a decade ago, scientists already recognized the potential smart clothes with noninvasive sensors could have on improving well-being. While, initially, consumers were mostly professional athletes, the applications of smart apparel are now expanding into other areas, too, from home use and ambulatory health monitoring. As smart clothing becomes more affordable and accessible, you will begin to see this health technology become more pervasive.

Smart clothing is a significant advancement for those with chronic conditions, especially those who require ongoing monitoring. Recent developments predict that several health conditions currently causing a lot of personal discomfort and significant economic losses might soon be more manageable with the help of smart clothing. There is a huge market for smart textiles and new innovations in this area continue to grow.

From Wearables 1.0 to Wearables 2.0

Instead of dealing with digital accessories or having a health sensor attached to your body, imagine wearing a smart shirt that can collect the same amount of data as a wearable, but with better accuracy. Traditional wearable devices have pushed the limits of health monitoring, but they have encountered some limitations. For instance, many people might find it difficult to engage with these devices and abandon them after short-term use. All too often, they inevitably end up in drawers.

As such, experts suggest that smart clothing could have certain advantages over the current available wearables. Smart clothing is arguably more convenient, comfortable, washable, durable, and reliable, to name a few distinctions.

It appears that the wearables we know now might soon be challenged by smart clothes, which have also been referred to as wearables 2.0.

Production of smart clothing is a multidisciplinary effort and requires input from different disciplines, including textile design, technical manufacturing, as well as various aspects of digital health. Thanks to the growing expertise in fabric sensors and textile biometric materials, smart clothes might soon become as ubiquitous as smartphones are today.

Electronically embedded clothing might be particularly useful for certain segments of the population, such as children, elderly, and people with chronic illness, including those with mental health conditions. Clothes are universal, neutral, and don’t carry the stigma that could be associated with wearing a conventional medical device. This can contribute to a sense of well-being. Sara J. Czaja, the scientific director of the Center on Aging at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, points out that novel devices which combine sensing and computing technologies that can unobtrusively monitor health indicators have an unprecedented value in our modern era.

Smart Socks for Diabetes

The smart clothes industry is starting to target specific health conditions. One example is diabetes. Limb complications associated with diabetes are a major health issue today, both on personal and financial levels.

The loss of mobility and independence that some with diabetes face, as well as health care-associated costs that reach a staggering $17 billion a year in the U.S., are alarming.

Now, Siren Care—a diabetes health-tracking startup—has developed an injury-detecting sock that could help people with diabetes prevent amputations. Early detection is critical in this process. Since skin inflammation is accompanied by a rise in temperature, studies show that home monitoring of foot skin temperature could significantly reduce skin ulcers.

Based on these findings, Siren produced a sock that can measure foot temperature in real-time in six different locations.

These spots were specifically selected because they are high points of pressure as well as being the most common sights of injury in people with diabetes.

What is so special about Siren’s product is that the sensor is incorporated into the fabric of the sock. As long as you are wearing the socks, there is no need to attach anything to your body. The product, which is manufactured in China, is powered by “SirenSmart” yarn. To produce it, the company creates an electronic strand and then wraps it to make usable yarn. Then, they weave the yarn into a sock using ordinary weaving machines and connect the final product to a PCB battery. The battery’s lifetime is two months if used daily. The socks are only on when they are worn; they go into sleep mode when off.

All data from the socks is sent to the Siren app using Bluetooth technology, so the user can monitor the condition of his or her feet in real-time. The application gives foot health scores and, when necessary, alerts the user to adjust activity and/or see a healthcare professional. Equipped with this novel technology, users can modify their activity by self-monitoring their skin temperature. This protocol can be integrated into everyday routines, similar to checking glucose levels.

Ran Ma, the company’s CEO and co-founder, explains that the sock is not a diagnostic device. It tells the user when to see a doctor, who can then make an official diagnosis. The socks are machine washable and dryable, and don’t need to be charged. Every six months, the user gets a new box with seven pairs of socks to replenish the used ones.

Siren presented their product at this year’s CES event in Las Vegas and announced that they are planning to start shipping their socks this summer. For customers, the cost is $30 per month. This might signal that this technology is becoming more assessable (when compared to the price of similar smart clothing). Siren is already planning future applications that will go beyond diabetes care, possibly monitoring urinary tract infections and pressure ulcers.

Orpyx Medical Technologies is another company that has been working on devices to prevent foot injuries related to diabetes. They designed an insole that captures pressure data from your feet and wirelessly connects with a smartwatch. Similarly to smart socks, the user is alerted when pressure increases so activity can be modified if needed.

Diabetes is not the only chronic condition that has been targeted by smart clothing developers. A research team led by Jie Wang of Dalian University of Technology in China has been working on smart apparel that can detect abnormal heart activity. They designed a shirt that can be used as an ECG. This innovation provides a platform for monitoring cardiovascular status with high accuracy. This system is simple for anyone to use and the data that gets collected can provide meaningful information that was previously only accessible from a hospital room.

Smart Clothes as Your Biometric Coach

Companies are exploring how to make wearables 2.0 more attractive and useful. For example, Canadian-based OMsignal designed a sports bra for women that not only detects heart rate and breathing but can also provide personalized advice regarding your running. Biosensors, which are embedded into the bra of the garment, collect the user’s data at the source of the activity (as opposed to wrist trackers), so you can receive more accurate feedback. The device connects with an iPhone app that, over time, adapts to the user’s body and helps them train more sustainably.

Another company that has been working on merging textiles with technology is AIQ-Smart Clothing. They, too, have perfected the process of integrating stainless steel yarns and threads directly into clothes. The material itself is conductive, so it does not need to be coated in copper or silver. The company offers gloves that do not need to be taken off to engage with touch panel devices. The conductive yarn is inside the fingertips of the gloves, which is a unique design specific to the garment. AIQ is known both for its sense of fashion and functionality and is yet another example of the shift from wrist-worn to body-worn tech.

Baby and child care is another area of smart clothing that has received a lot of attention. Owlet baby care, for example, offers a smart sock that can measure a baby’s oxygen level and heart rate. The technology provides parents with information on their child’s breathing. The technology can also alert parents if their baby’s sleep quality changes. Smart clothing will likely continue to evolve, making the need for accessories and wearables obsolete.  

Sources

Armstrong D, Holtz-Neiderer K, Wendel C, Mohler M, Kimbriel H, Lavery L. Skin Temperature Monitoring Reduces the Risk for Diabetic Foot Ulceration in High-risk Patients. American Journal of Medicine, 2007;120(12):1042-1046.

Axisa F, Schmitt P, Gehin C, Delhomme G, Dittmar A, McAdams E. Flexible technologies and smart clothing for citizen medicine, home healthcare, and disease prevention. IEEE Transactions On Information Technology In Biomedicine, 2005;9(3):325-336.

Chen, M., Ma, Y., Song, J., Lai, C., & Hu, B. Smart Clothing: Connecting Human with Clouds and Big Data for Sustainable Health Monitoring. Mobile Networks and Applications, 2016; 21(5): 825-845. doi:10.1007/s11036-016-0745-1

Czaja, S. J. Can Technology Empower Older Adults to Manage Their Health?. Generations, 2015; 39(1), 46-51.

Wang, J., Lin, C., Yu, Y., & Yu, T. Wireless Sensor-Based Smart-Clothing Platform for ECG Monitoring. Computational and Mathematical Methods in Medicine, 2015, Article ID 295704.

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