Smart fibres promise host of gadgets

A golf swing trainer, and a ‘pregnancy belt’ that lets mothers keep an eye on their unborn baby’s heartbeat, are two possible spin-off products from research to develop smart fabrics to guard against repetitive strain injury.

The textiles are the result of the Context project, a European initiative funded through the EU Sixth Framework Programme for Information Society Technologies. The main focus was on creating a vest capable of preventing the problem of workplace repetitive strain injury which is estimated to cost industry billions of euros a year and account for half of work-related ill-health.

Designing a garment that monitors muscle activity and warns the wearer when they need to take a recuperative break presented several challenges. As well as having to incorporate a relatively novel sensor that demanded sophisticated electronics located in the clothing, researchers had to track the ‘quiet’ metric of electromyography, or electrical activity in the muscle, which can be drowned out just by the rustle of clothing.

“Each of the issues was very difficult.” said project coordinator Bas Feddes. “We chose to use a capacitative sensor, because it does not need to be attached to the skin, like resistive sensors do, which adds to the comfort. It needs controlling electronics close to the sensor to work effectively, and that presents a real challenge for textile integration,”

Because their initial work was finished on time and under budget, the researchers were able to explore other potential applications including the pregnancy belt.

“In the short term, this would be more of a lifestyle application, rather than a medical one, but that work could lead to a belt that helps monitor difficult pregnancies,” said Feddes. Parents could enjoy the peace of mind monitoring their child’s heartbeat, perhaps with a heart-shaped light keeping the rhythm, he suggested, but the potential trauma caused by false warning means reliability will be paramount.

Muscle stress during sports training is another potential application, Feddes added. “Hockey coaches find it difficult to give feedback to their players, so they would be very interested in clothing that details the path of their stroke. The shirt would track the order in which muscles engaged during the swing. It is an application that could apply to golf, too.”

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