Tips on how to be… fashionably healthy

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Smart fabrics promise to revolutionise clothing by incorporating new technology involving sensors which can be used for lifestyle, business and health purposes.

And this futuristic  technology has moved out of the prototype ‘out there’ stage and into serious mainstream thinking.  Even Microsoft is getting into the market with one of its research teams coming up with a smart dress which can operate as a laptop.

Knowledge of wearable clothing technology is not new. In the mid 2000’s scientists in China were investigating the possibility of ‘health smart’ clothes.  These scientists made the point that as clothes are in contact with almost all the surface of the skin, the human body offers large possibilities for wearable technology.

The race is on to mine the health care opportunities flowing from cutting-edge technology innovations.  There are already a number of  pioneering applications utilising this technology which are making a splash in the medical world. Garments made from smart fabrics  which are used to monitor vital signs like heart rate and temperature are currently  on the market.

Scientists working in the field say that health smart clothing offers enormous scope for the location of sensors for non invasive health measurements.  The proximity of an organ or a source of bio-signal on the body can be taken into account when designing a garment with strategically placed sensors capable of taking medical statistics, improving circulation and so on.

Proponents of the technology point out that head bands, collar, T Shirts, socks, shoes, belts, and any sort of clothing covering for chest, arms, wrists, legs etc can be utilised for a specific health purpose.  The sensors have to be thin, flexible and compatible with textiles, or at least made using textile technologies such as new fibres with specific properties.

The field of applications for these new smart textiles is enormous.  Intelligent biomedical clothes that can act as a human interface can be utilised to monitor health in such areas as monitoring the health of  growing elderly populations in many countries of the world, assessing an athlete’s performance,  equipping  armed service personnel, assisting diabetics, people with disabilities and hospital patients. The list goes on.

In fact just about any health related need could eventually be helped using smart clothes.  Scientists point out that in the future, given the ever increasing knowledge about health, using clothes which interact with the body, can translate this new intelligent clothing into a personalised feedback system for the wearer useful for any type of disease and in any situation.

Research teams around the world have already developed groundbreaking medical-sensing smart fabrics. Pregnancy monitoring belts, sports clothing that provides training tips, vests that can track your heart rate, ECG and body temperature, vests which can help to prevent repetitive strain injury. All of these smart clothes  are already on the market.

The race is on to be the first to develop new smart fabrics to revolutionise clothing. Leah Paff  is general manager of Woolmark Australasia, a company which has patented an sensory perception process called Microencapsulation. Paff  says that this new technology which uses  treated  fabrics in  medical treatments is only just beginning. She gives examples of medical uses for the  microencapsulated fabric technology, such as the  use of vitamin E for scarring and for stimulating blood circulation in diabetic patients.

In the future there are even more astounding applications in the pipeline. This involves  the development of what is called bio-therapeutic textiles. The idea is to ultimately move to a protocol which would see hospital patients wearing a singlet that could monitor their stats and send them remotely to a nurse operating a computer.

Brave new world stuff.  I wonder if the technology would stretch to making a cup of tea for the hospital patients at the same time the stats are being recorded? Not such an impossible thought. I read somewhere recently where a young fashion designer had developed a dress which makes cocktails for the wearer. So perhaps the scientists, given that the nurse seems to be job sharing with the singlet, could expand the technology to enable the garment to deliver a bit of alternate comfort.