Technology - prêt-à-porter
Projects in Ireland and Germany are preparing the future tools of multi-tasking and real-time biological analysis. The use of these tools is as easy as getting dressed, with the required electronics and software being eventually integrated into clothes and clothing accessories.
Researchers involved in the Biotex project in Dublin are searching for an appropriate method to analyse perspiration. Their newest prototype has built-in bio-chemical sensors, which measure such properties as the saltiness, acidity and temperature of a person's sweat, giving insight into the subject's state of health. The data is then sent wirelessly to a computer. The prototype is a piece of fabric with a fluidic channel, along which a pH sensor, conductivity sensor, sodium sensor and temperature sensors are set. The design provides much more reliable data than in the past, as it enables a continuous flow of fresh sweat through the sensors. This is very important since the chemical composition of sweat changes with time.
This wearable technology will be of great benefit to the sports industry. The biochemical engineers are now looking at integrating their prototype into a T-shirt together with other sensors, providing a complete physiological overview of a person while they train or exercise. Products like smart shoes or T-shirts with sensors could provide a complementary function to traditional testing methods such as blood testing. The technology could therefore be used against sports doping, or for physiotherapists and trainers to observe the physical state of their athletes.
The technology could also be applied to medicine, for example, to continuously monitor diabetics or cystic fibrosis sufferers. But difficult problems still exist in integrating soft textiles with hard electronics and even with chemicals.
The Wear It At Work project in Bremen, Germany, is developing job-specific gadgets that they call wearable computing. This technology should increase the ease of multi-tasking and is also very adaptive to specific working conditions. Tests are under way with several emergency service crews in Europe. The possibilities include wireless communication between fire fighters, sending images when visibility is extremely low and identifying toxic fumes in the air.
Another area of application is medical surgery. A doctor could transfer data to and from a computer just by wearing an electronic bracelet and belt. The PCB (printed circuit board) consists of a Bluetooth module, a small power supply unit, interfaces connected to sensor modules and an RFID (radio frequency identification) reader. Information is collected from the RFID reader and the sensors and sent via Bluetooth to a computer. One prototype is a wristband controlled by hand gestures. It reacts to upwards and sideways movements, recognising the speed of movement. The wristband has now been developed to react to micro gestures, after the larger, less subtle movements during earlier testing made patients feel uncomfortable. The doctor, or any user of this technology, can receive the necessary information to support a primary task without further delays or interruptions.
There is great potential for a computer system where the conventional keyboard or mouse is rendered obsolete. The technology already exists. It is now a matter of fine-tuning for general use at work and eventually at home.