“Wearables” entered the popular lexicon only in the last decade with the proliferation of bracelet-style fitness trackers such as Fitbit, followed a little later by smartwatches from big mobile brands, including Apple and Samsung.
But another generation of smart wearable technology – smart clothes – is already here and brings with it enormous potential for healthcare consumers and their caregivers.
The makers of these smart clothes embed various types of sensors, almost imperceptible, into everyday clothing. In turn, these garments provide near-constant streams of biometric data about the wearer, from basic stress and emotional comfort levels to vital signs, such as heart rate and respiration.
The health and wellness benefits promise to be sweeping and profound: prediction, prevention and (remote) management of chronic conditions, reduced hospitalization rates and extended independence for people later in life.
The inspiration for Toronto-based “textile computing” company Myant came out of the challenges that founder Tony Chahine faced as his father suffered from Alzheimer’s.
“The idea came from Tony’s inability to talk with his father,” says Ilaria Varoli, executive vice president at Myant. “It was hard to know what he was thinking and feeling, if he was cold or sick.”
Biometric sensors on the body can gather such information – literally telling caregivers or healthcare professionals that the wearer is cold or sick – but to be practical, the sensors needed to be seamlessly integrated into the clothing.
And now they are.
Montreal-based Hexoskin got its start in 2006 in an effort to address some of the healthcare challenges associated with an aging society. Its smart shirts, which are now on the market, offer cardiac (ECG) monitoring as well as lung function and activity monitoring. Health professionals and researchers are using the connected Hexoskin platform for research, and Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques will be wearing Hexoskin technology when he goes into space later this year.
Myant will be going to market later this year with its Skiin line of smart underwear. Its six sensors monitor a similar array of important biometrics, but the company describes Skiin as bi-directional. It monitors, gathers and can transmit data, but it will also be possible to instruct the garment to perform a task. For now, it can notify the wearer when stress levels are too high, and future versions will be able to warm the wearer directly when body temperature dips too low (or even send a signal to a smart thermostat to heat a room).
“The long-term plan is to deliver therapy on demand or remotely,” says Varoli. That could mean electric muscle stimulation or the ability to determine whether the wearer is taking medications properly. Myant is even working with Zoll Medical Corporation to develop new wearable defibrillators.
Privacy concerns aside (and many will feel uncomfortable about such monitoring), it will be possible to generate a remarkably detailed health and well-being profile of anyone willing to don a piece of smart clothing. That could be invaluable for, say, the child of an aging parent with a chronic condition, or one who is slowing down but isn’t ready to move out of their home.
“This doesn’t replace all care or the eventual need for care,” says Varoli. “But I think it extends the period of time where people can still be independent and everyone else would otherwise be worried about them.”
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French wearable airbag company Helite is touting these airbag hip protectors. Worn around the waist like a belt, the Hip’Safe contains sensors (gyroscopes and accelerometers) that constantly analyze the motion of the wearer and can detect a fall within 0.2 seconds, prompting airbags to deploy instantly, absorbing as much as 90 percent of impact.
Good health starts with good posture. Developed in Canada, Adrenalease posture apparel includes adjustable elastic straps that run down under the armpit and attach together, gently pulling the shoulders back, and putting the wearer into a position that relieves muscle stress. Company founder Noureddin Chahrour was still a kinesiology student at the University of Toronto when he started the company. He’d been dealing with neck and shoulder pain – as do a growing number of people thanks to increasingly sedentary lifestyles – and tried different braces. “They were either too clunky, they were bulky, they stuck out, I couldn’t wear anything over top of them and they were not adjustable,” he says. He tried Kinesio Taping, which spurred the idea for adjustable straps embedded into a T-shirt. After initially accepting an offer from Dragon’s Den and then walking away when he realized he’d undervalued his company, Chahrour’s business is taking off, selling T-shirts, tank tops and his latest product, a sports bra.
PostureCoach is unique in the wearables market because it targets caregivers. “They often are involved in a lot of bending and twisting, and lifting heavy loads, so the risk of back injury is a real concern,” says Dr. Tilak Dutta, a scientist at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute–University Health Network. He developed PostureCoach in partnership with Saint Elizabeth Health Care, along with funding from AGE-WELL. More than eight million Canadians are caring for family members or friends, which often involves chair and bed transfers, dressing, toileting and bathing. PostureCoach has two sensors, one for the upper back and one for the lower back, that vibrate if the wearer is in the wrong position. Caregivers are often taught how to lift, but this gives the prompt in real time – when they are actually doing the lifting – to develop the “muscle memory” to do it safely every time.
Advancements in functional electrical stimulation (FES) are leading to new treatments that “reawaken” muscles of people suffering paralysis from strokes or spinal cord injuries.
Low-intensity electrical impulses stimulate the neural pathways and generate muscle contraction, improving motor function, including the ability to stand and to grasp objects.
In hospitals the therapy is delivered with iPad-sized stimulators. Now Milos Popovic, a world-renowned University of Toronto expert in rehabilitation engineering, is working with Myant to create shirts and pants embedded with electrodes that deliver the stimulation.
“Garment-based FES is intended for use at home to train and assist people to do daily activities, such as standing, transferring and grasping objects,” says Popovic, Rehab Chair in Spinal Cord Injury Research and director of research, Toronto Rehabilitation Institute-University Health Network. “For older adults whose mobility and participation in society are limited by neurological conditions, the potential benefits are enormous.”
The treatment could give back independence lost through paralysis, making daily activities, such as eating, dressing and bathing, possible once again. In turn, it reduces the caregiving toll on families and the healthcare system.
With funding from AGE-WELL, the researchers at Toronto Rehab and the University Health Network are testing the shirt on people with upper-limb paralysis, and holding focus groups with clinicians and users to figure out how to bring the innovative new therapeutic clothing to market.
Originally published in Issue 01 of YouAreUNLTD Magazine.