You don’t have super senses yet, but some day your clothes might.
By Brian Rubin
Imagine walking across a smoke-filled room. Obstacles like furniture and toys are strewn about, making your progress even more difficult. Firefighters and other first-responders face these scenarios all the time, of course. While superheroes have used heightened senses to save the day for years, real-world solutions remain in short supply.
The students working in the Wearable Technology Lab at the University of Minnesota in Saint Paul, however, might be bringing the powers of comic book fantasy closer to reality. Led by its director, Dr. Lucy Dunne, the Wearable Technology Lab has prototyped a pair of augmented firefighters’ gloves that could save lives. “A lot of first-responder situations have sensory impairment of some sort,” explains Dunne. “Maybe it’s vision, maybe it’s that they’re wearing heavy gloves and they can’t feel with their hands.”
That’s where the gloves come in. The prototypes use a sort of vibration “sonar” to alert the wearer to nearby objects and their relative distance, augmenting the sense of touch to replace impaired vision. To test the gloves’ effectiveness, Dunne and her students asked: Can people actually map a vibration change to distance? Two sets of experiments provided the answers. “One is sort of a gap-detection task,” says Dunne. “We line up a set of obstacles, like regularly sized squares or boxes. The subject is blindfolded, and we remove one of the obstacles, and we ask them to tell us where the gap is. So they walk along this row of obstacles and they say, ‘I think there’s nothing here.’”
“The second task we did was sort of a more granular assessment of whether or not they could accurately detect distance and map that to something known,” she continues. “So in that test we have four intervals marked on a long table, and they can see how far they are — we show them with their eyes open what it feels like with the obstacle at each of those distances, and then we blindfold them and place it in a random position and ask them where it is right now. So that tests if they can sense relative changes — like this obstacle is closer than the last one — and can they sense absolute distances, like this is at position two.”
The prototypes managed to garner local media attention and soon the Minneapolis Fire Department opened communications to determine the next step for the gloves’ development — or perhaps some other tech-apparel integration that hasn’t yet been thought up.
But first-responders aren’t the only group they’ve been working with: the Johnson Space Center in Houston has been working with the lab to integrate sensors, circuits, and other technology into potential astronaut-friendly clothes.
One of the key components is the “stretch sensor,” made of a conductive thread composed of silver-coated nylon that’s sewn into garments’ cover stitches, one of the most common stitches in clothes. The sensors gather data based on the wearer’s movements, sort of like the popular Nike Fuel Band exercise monitor. But stretch sensors have a broader potential, says Dunne. “That band only knows the acceleration of one part of your body,” she says. “So it can detect running and walking and jumping, but it can’t detect waving to your friend, or brushing your teeth, or subtle differences like that. If you had sensors all over, you’d be able to detect more.”
Dunne says that one application for the stretch sensor is to monitor breathing. Other garments developed in collaboration with Johnson Space Center include designs and prototypes that integrate liquid cooling, or circuit-embedded clothes intended for remote computing and communications.
But wearable technology innovations have potential for those of us who don’t rush into burning buildings or work in space. The lab is working on a smart wardrobe using washable radio-frequency identification chips (RFIDs) to gather data about what you wear and even recommend outfits to you — sort of a Netflix for your closet.
Still, we’re years away from buying stretch sensor enhanced shirts at Target. But the Wearable Technology Lab is laying the groundwork for when smart wardrobes could be part of our everyday lives, so much so that we would forget a time when they weren’t.
Dunne sums up stitched-in sensor technology’s potential: “It could be seamless.”