Smart bracelets that monitor bodily activity have become commonplace, and tech giants Samsung and Google continue to invest in the design and manufacture of the clothing and accessories of the future. They also set the tone for the technology and the fashion market and light industry leaders. Interesting experiments are taking place in the e-textile and smart clothing segment that emerged in 2015. Clearly, it is no longer enough for everyday clothes to be comfortable, pleasant to wear, to express one's personality or to meet prevailing aesthetic standards. It faces new challenges — tracking bodily activity, recording changes, and archiving health information. In some cases, it can also be used to promote health, alert, or call for help.
Smart clothing — hi-tech clothing, electronics, smart textiles — is enhanced by technology that gives clothing, footwear, or accessories more functionality than usual. This category of clothing is also known as e-clothing. Most of these garments are made of advanced textiles embedded with sensors or microchips that collect biometric data on the condition of the wearer's body and how it changes. The data is sent via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi to artificial intelligence applications on the smart device. Major fashion companies such as Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Under Armour, Levi's, and others are already developing such innovative clothing. Let's take a look at the health-enhancing roles of modern smart clothing and accessories.
Monitor bodily activity
Innovative sportswear with built-in electronic devices to record heart rate, joint movements, sleeping positions, and breathing, is easy to find. These are sophisticated, wearable and practical garments that can be folded, machine-washed or even ironed. Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a digital fibre that can sense, store, and analyse parameters of the human body, and monitor physiological functions. The microscopic digital mesh sewn onto garments as an additional layer does not weigh down the textiles, and can be folded, washed and ironed.
For example, this fabric, placed in the underarm of a shirt, can collect body temperature data. In the study, the smart microfibre shirt collected 270 minutes of body temperature data during different physical activities. The smart fibre was then able to identify, with 96% accuracy, the activity of the person wearing the shirt. As well as collecting a wide range of information about bodily activity, digital fabrics can also alert the wearer to changes in health, such as breathing, or irregular heartbeats.
Among the innovations widely known in today's market is the Komodo AIO smart sleeve, which uses electrocardiogram technology to monitor heart rhythm activity. In addition to accurate heart rate data, it tracks training intensity and sleep. The smart module is equipped with sensors to detect body temperature, air quality, and UV rays. While at first glance it looks like a fitness enthusiast's toy, the AIO start-up has ambitious goals — to measure stress levels, detect heart disease, etc.
Similarly, the Hexoskin T-shirt features smart sensors that measure heart rate, respiratory rate, and movement, and provide data on activity intensity, calories burned, fatigue levels, and sleep quality. Another smart T-shirt — Ambiotex — is designed for runners, cyclists, fitness and other professionals or enthusiasts, and measures heart rate, stress levels and aerobic information. Sensors embedded in the garment record data that can be viewed, stored and analysed in a smartphone app, giving you insights into how to optimise your workouts, and recover from them efficiently.
Protect and call for help
Researchers at Purdue University in the US have developed smart clothing that is powered wirelessly through a flexible, ultra-thin spool of silk sewn onto a textile. Coated with hydrophobic molecules, these garments are water- and dirt-resistant and almost impossible to stain. However, it is machine washable if necessary: the innovative impregnated fabric protects the electronic components from water. These garments are as flexible, stretchy, and breathable as a normal cotton T-shirt. Their special feature is a connection to your smart device, which allows you to track and archive your health data and achieve productivity and call for help during a medical emergency during strenuous exercise or an accident.
There is also a drive to make clothing that monitors the health of babies commonplace. Monitoring the fragile body is an effective preventive measure to avoid a wide range of highly undesirable events. Owlet smart socks monitor the oxygen levels and heart rate of newborns. The manufacturer has used pulse oximetry technology used in hospitals to monitor the baby's heart rate while wearing the socks to ensure that the sleep and breathing of the baby are not disturbed. The product synchronises with your smartphone and provides real-time data. It can also be linked to the Owlet Connected Care platform, which helps identify potential health problems, such as pneumonia, bronchiolitis, chronic lung diseases, heart defects, and sleep disorders.
Neopenda's smart baby hat measures temperature, heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood oxygen levels. Up to 24 toddler hats can be synchronised with a computer via Bluetooth. This allows doctors and nurses to check the vital signs of all babies at the same time and receive alerts if any changes in temperature or heart rate are of concern.
Orthopaedic and massage footwear is already known to help with foot and leg health problems. But have you heard of such socks? Siren smart socks, designed to protect diabetics from foot injuries, also have protective properties. Siren diabetic socks with a woven foot tracking system continuously monitor temperature: microsensors embedded in the fabric measure the foot temperature at 6 different points. When the sensors detect an increase in heat, i.e., inflammation, an alert is sent to the user's smartphone. Diabetics suffering from nerve damage often have numbness in their legs, and the sensations that signal inflammation are ignored or not felt, often leading to amputations. Therefore, Siren socks are an effective preventive measure to avoid this.
There are also universal socks that simply measure steps, their height, walking speed, and distance. One of the current TOP smart products, Sensoria socks have the advantage of being able to detect incorrect, dangerous or potentially injuring running styles. Smart socks detect which part of the foot is under the most pressure when running — so you can adjust your running style.
And the haptic sensors built into the Nadi X yoga pants send a signal when a pose needs improvement. Using haptic feedback, the smart garment sends a subtle vibration to the body part to be adjusted. Built-in sensitive vibrations gently pulsate the hips, knees, and ankles, encouraging the athlete to move and hold proper positions. The yoga pants sync via Bluetooth to your smartphone and the app provides instructions on how to optimise each pose. This product can be washed after removing the battery, which is attached at the bend of the left knee.
Light and heat effect
It is perhaps no longer surprising to see clothing that has been developed with chemists and biochemists, controlling the dissipation of heat according to air temperature and the wearer's need for warmth. Smart clothing monitors the body's condition and adapts the sensation of warmth or cold to protect or ventilate: when a person is hot, the fabric opens to let in more air; when they're cold, it closes to create a thermal block. Such clothing is widely used by soldiers, athletes, and field workers.
Innovative product developers continue to experiment with light and heat effects. For example, the smart Under Armour Athlete Recovery Sleepwear absorbs heat from the wearer's body and emits infrared light. All this for better sleep quality and recovery of muscles exhausted throughout the day. The company also has a full line of clothing that absorbs heat from the body and radiates it onto the wearer's skin. Body heat is converted into infrared light, which has been shown by research to be important and beneficial for the human body.
There is also a very broad specialisation in sun-protective clothing, mostly UV-absorbing textiles. But, for example, the smart Neviano swimsuit measures UV exposure. This French fashion technology company has used a medallion-shaped waterproof sensor in its UV Protect swimwear collection to prevent overexposure to the sun. The app tracks the wearer's body temperature based on their skin type. The sensor detects high UV levels and lets you know when you need to apply sunscreen, cool down in the shade or the water.
Textiles with protection against harmful UV rays are no longer a surprise to most. But a garment that can revitalise sun-bleached, dehydrated skin and nourish it with moisturising, regenerating substances is far more interesting. For example, Buki's limited edition collection includes T-shirts and scarves that contain collagen and peptides to moisturise, soften, and protect the skin from harmful environmental effects. Monsson Blooms, meanwhile, offers clothes made from organic cotton containing Ayurvedic herbs.
Sounds extravagant? Curious to give it a try? Right. And it takes time — decades of research — to prove that clothing can make a real difference to our health or protect our bodies from harmful activities or environmental influences. Let's be curious, but stay critical. Have fun experimenting in the smart clothing market!