Product design and development specialist Cambridge Consultants has announced details of its XelfleX garment, designed with ‘breakthrough’ optical technology.
Cambridge Consultants has worked with fibre-optic sensors for industrial applications for over 20 years. These systems are capable of measuring the stretching of a hair-width fibre with high precision and cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.
With this experience in mind, XelfleX inventor Martin Brock says that the team saw a market for wearable technology that was fashionable and comfortable, with the sensing elements “almost unnoticeable, yet also giving far more detailed measurement of body motion than possible with a wristband.”
“I saw that there was a way of making a low cost, sub-$100 fibre-optic sensor using cheap, robust, waterproof and safe plastic optical fibre,” Brock explains, “and that this would be perfect for use in novel, elegant, comfortable and robust body motion sensing clothing.
“We had been working on a number of wearable devices. We saw that much of the activity in the area could be summed up as 'gadgets for techies': devices that were bulky, inelegant, inconvenient and often failed to deliver any real useful information to their users. You don't need to wear a chunky wristband to find out if you've had a bad night's sleep.”
Cambridge Consultants spent several hundred thousand dollars to get to a proof-of-concept demo system and Brock says more investment will be needed to get to a finished product, notably in how to mass-produce the fibre-to-garment bonding, but also in the software and algorithms to interpret the raw data into useful feedback to help people improve their golf, tennis or ski technique, for example.
“Beyond that, there could be a much larger market in gaming and augmented reality, as well as niche – but potentially valuable – markets in physiotherapy and rehab,” Brock adds. “In all cases, the key is having a comfortable, robust, fashionable garment that just happens to have some super sensing capabilities.”
The electronics and fibre-optic cable can be very low cost in volume. The fibre can cost merely a few cents per metre and the electronics are based around a low-cost, low-power ARM Cortex M0 processor coupled to intelligent yet low-cost RF analogue circuitry which takes care of all of the fast signal processing.
The actual fabric of XelfleX can be almost anything, due to the design, but it must be reasonably close-fitting. A sensing fibre is then embedded into or attached onto the fabric. “The sensing fibre is made of a highly flexible, robust, safe and waterproof polymer that we expect to be fully washable,” Brock says. “A single sensing fibre can cross up to about 10 joint regions and measure body position/motion at each of these locations simultaneously.”
Attached to one end of the fibre is a credit-card sized electronics module powered by a rechargeable battery, giving around 24 hours of continuous use. The module is linked via Bluetooth to an app on a smartphone or smartwatch which gives real-time feedback to users.
Cambridge Consultants launched XelfleX at CES 2015 in Las Vegas, where it drew great public interest. “The world seemed sick of wrist-worn activity trackers,” Brock notes. “Xelflex was one of the few genuinely novel wearable technologies that impressed with the underlying technology and its ability to measure body motion and provide coaching on technique, rather than just a crude measure of 'activity'.”
“XelfleX was inspired by fibre optic sensors we developed for the oil and gas industry. It's often the case that great new products come from cross-fertilisation between industries, whether that's military sensor technology enabling multi-touch smart-phone screens or Nasa sensing technology enabling novel key-hole surgery.”