Smart dressing: advances in wearable technology

10 min read

With wearable technology poised to hit the mainstream, UK firms are well placed to make a mark in this emerging sector. Jon Excell reports

We are, it’s claimed, on the brink of a wearable technology revolution.

Fast-forward ten years and, according to some predictions, today’s smart phones and tablets will be rendered obsolete by a new generation of surreptitious devices controlled  by little more than a wink of the eye, a twirl of the finger or the peak of  a brain-wave.

While such claims should probably be taken with a pinch of salt, there’s little doubt that wearable technology - long talked about as the next big thing - is gathering momentum.

Many believe Google's hotly anticipated wearable computer could open the gate to a new wave of wearable technologies
Many believe Google’s hotly anticipated wearable computer could open the gate to a new wave of wearable technologies

Later this year, the hotly anticipated Google Glass wearable computer is expected to be made available to consumers, whilst engineers at Apple are reported to be working on  a wrist-worn computer - inevitably dubbed the iWatch - that has sent the Mac-fan rumour mill into overdrive.

And away from the headlines, a host of wearable technologies aimed at a variety of different sectors are poised to find their feet in largely untested new markets.

So does the current spike of interest really herald a wearable revolution? And if so, how is the UK fixed to capitalise on this?

Rob Milner is a senior consultant at Cambridge Consultants, a company which has plenty of experience in the wearables sector. And he believes that after more than a decade of hype the technology has indeed reached a tipping point

Gradually that threshold has been crossed where for different applications you can actually make useful consumer devices

Rob Milner, Cambridge Consultants

‘We’ve been working in this area for the last 15 years,’ said Milner, ‘and we have really seen an enormous peak in activities over the last couple of years.’

He puts this down to the continuing development of tiny, low power electronic devices ‘Gradually that threshold has been crossed where for different applications you can actually make useful consumer devices. The size and power consumption has made it so that the user can and is willing to wear them perhaps around the clock and that’s a big step’

What’s more, while Google Glass is grabbing all the headlines, Milner believes that some of the most compelling, lucrative, and potentially most important markets for wearable technology play directly to some of the UK’s key strengths: the development of technology for monitoring and analysing a user’s fitness and well-being and health.

‘Google Glass grabs the headlines because it’s such a striking product but actually looking at CES this year there was a chunk of one of the halls that was completely occupied by fitness and well-being accessories which were intended to be worn. I think that’s where the volume is going to come from.’

A key area for the UK is in the development of wearable healthcare technology. And one of the pioneers in this important sector is Imperial College’s Regius Professor of engineering Chris Toumazou.

Prof Toumazou’s work in the field is celebrated. He developed one of the world’s first cochlear implants and, through his firm Toumaz Technology, has commercialised the Sensium digital plaster technology  which remotely monitors and a patient’s vital signs, and provides medical staff with valuable interpreted data.

Toumaz technology's Sensium digital plaster is currently undergoing trials in the US
Toumaz Technology’s Sensium digital plaster is currently undergoing trials in the US

Toumazou believes the UK has a good track record of developing wearable technology for healthcare but that it hasn’t been as succesfull as it could be at capitalising and exploiting it’s expertise in the area.

One of the reasons for this, he explained, is that digital healthcare is primarily about preventative medicine, about early diagnosis and helping people to live healthier lifestyles. And it can be tricky to make a business case for a technology which will only start showing its true worth several years down the line.

Rob Milner agrees. ‘Everybody knows that healthcare needs to move to being more preventative,’ he said, ‘people have known that for decades. But the exact savings are hard to quantify, you need a lot more evidence before you start to change a healthcare system, and there are lots of people who are not incentivised by making the health service more efficient.’

Nevertheless, Toumazou believes things are starting to change, and that the technology is finally getting some traction in the UK thanks to some striking applications elsewhere, particularly in the US – where the plaster is being used to monitor the vital signs of several hundred patients at LA’s St Johns Hospital. This particular trial has already saved lives by alerting nurses to heart arrythmias, claimed Toumazou.

You need the bulldozer of the US to convince this country that these technologies are the right thing

Prof Chris Toumazou, Imperial College

Interestingly, much of the momentum to deploy the technology in the US  is down to changes to health legislation which have meant that hospitals are becoming liable for treatment costs if recently discharged patients become unwell again. ‘It’s up to the hospital to ensure either the patient is as fit as anything before they leave hospital or that they’ve got a technology that they can use to monitor the patient in the home.’

The US healthcare system is perhaps an unlikely source of inspiration for our own NHS, but it’s striking practical demonstrations of the technologies’ benefits that Toumazou believes will encourage its adoption close to home. ‘You need the bulldozer of the US to convince this country that these technologies are the right thing,’ he said.

It’s an approach that seems to be bearing fruit and Toumazou is now particularly excited about trials at London’s Hammersmith Hospital of a wearable artificial pancreas that combines the Sensium technology with an insulin pump.

The innovative device, which continuously monitors a patient’s glucose levels and automatically administers insulin, promises to be a huge leap forward that could improve the lives of many of the world’s rapidly increasing number of type-1 diabetics.

Toumazou’s main focus now though is on another, potentially equally transformative area of healthcare technology: the use of semiconductors to detect and monitor genetic mutations.

Several years ago, Toumazou developed the world’s first method of detecting DNA with a microchip. He is now commercialising the technology through his spin-out firm DNA Electronics.

Chris Toumazou's DNA Electronics technology is being used by the cosmetics industry to analyse skin types and prescribe treatments
Prof Chris Toumazou’s DNA Electronics technology is being used by the cosmetics industry to analyse skin types and prescribe treatments

The technology has already been licensed to Life Technologies in the US and healthcare giant Roche, which are both using it for lab-based genetic sequencing. Indeed, Toumazou claims it’s the  fastest-growing sequencing technology to date.

‘Sequencing is all about discovery of  mutations,’ he explained. ‘We all differ by about 0.1% , we metabolise drugs differently, have hereditary aspects, and different predispositions to illnesses.’

‘I’ve created an array of microchips that have on them the identity of these mutations and differences. Then, when an individual gives you a saliva sample, I can check within less than 30 minutes whether they’ve got that DNA. If you want to prescribe the right drug for an individual, this technology will give you the results on the spot.’

In order to create interest in the technology and demonstrate its capabilities, Toumazou has chosen an unusual route, and launched the technology into a cosmetics business known as geneOnyx: ‘A lady goes into a cosmetics shop and we take her saliva. Using a cloud computer in Hong Kong we match her DNA to active ingredients in a cosmetics product and can then prescribe the right cosmetics product based on her DNA.’

Technologies will be adopted in other markets first where they are not encumbered with huge legacy healthcare system

Rob Milner

It’s an intriguing application, but the long term ambition, he says, is to develop a wearable device like a patch, which can monitor changes to a person’s genetic code in real time and potentially provide early warning of illnesses such as cancer.

It’s a tantalising - if not slightly unnerving - glimpse of the future and, given the rapidly growing market for self-diagnostic devices (annual sales have now passed the $150m mark), an area of technology that could spell big business for the UK.

However, despite the huge potential of medical markets, Cambridge Consultants’ Milner believes that wearable technology will make its biggest inroads in less sensitive sectors. ‘Technologies will be adopted in other markets first where they are not encumbered with huge legacy healthcare system,’ he said.

And this, he suggested, is where our nascent wearable technologies industry will face another type of challenge.

The UK is great, he said, at developing enabling technologies and there are many examples of firms well-placed to make their mark in the world of wearables. But with the sector still seen as an unproven market, many of these companies are understandably nervous about sticking their heads above the parapet and are instead focusing on applications in other more established fields.

One such firm is Yorkshire materials specialist Peratech, which is currently developing commercial applications for an unusual class of materials known as Quantum Tunnelling Composites (QTC) .

Peratech's Quantum Tunelling Composite (QTC) material can be used to create a range of smart switches and sensors
Peratech’s Quantum Tunelling Composite (QTC) material can be used to create a range of smart switches and sensors

Thanks to barely understood quantum phenomena, QTC materials - which are based on discoveries made in 1996 by the company’s founder and CTO David Lussey - are able to sense both touch and pressure.

Lussey explained that when placed under any kind of pressure, the material (which is made from a mixture of conductive filler particles and an elastomeric binder) switches from being a near-perfect insulator to being a conductor, and can, for instance, be applied to fabric and used to create simple on/off switches. More excitingly, because the resistance of the material varies according to the amount of force applied, it holds great promise for the development of a range of pressure-sensitive devices.

Peratech is arguably one of the UK pioneers of smart clothing. QTC materials were at the heart of a “smart” ski-jacket with in-built iPod controls that was launched early last decade, and the technology even found its way onto the touch-sensitive fingertip of NASA’s Robonaut humanoid space robot.

More recently, the firm announced that it is working with the London College of Fashion on the development of a range of clothing applications for the technology, ranging from blue-tooth enabled touch pads that can be printed directly onto garments, to printed sensors able to monitor a wearer’s well-being or detect dangerous chemicals in the environment.

QTC - which peratech now produces in the form of a printable ink - consists of conductive metallic particles and an elastomeric binder materials
QTC - which peratech now produces in the form of a printable ink - consists of conductive metallic particles and an elastomeric binder materials

However, despite continued low-level activity in the smart textiles market, Peratech’s primary focus is now on the application of its technology to next-generation touch screens and controls.

This has been largely fuelled by the development of a printable ink-based version of QTC material that the company manufactures at its Yorkshire head-quarters and sells, along with a license, to a growing number of electronics companies. In its largest deal to date - worth $1.4 million -  the material has been licensed to Japanese touchscreen manufacturer Nissha Corporation, which is using it to help develop a new generation of thinner mobile phones.

The ink form of the material boasts some startling properties: as well as being pressure-sensitive, it’s also anisotropic, meaning that it only senses where the user touches it. In addition to this, Lussey’s team has also figured out how to make a transparent version of the ink. ‘We’re creating touchscreens that are very different from anything else that’s around,’ he said. ‘We can make a transparent touchscreen that can tell how hard you’re touching it - that’s a showstopper.’

What’s more, whilst QTC ink is currently printed using silk-screen techniques, the company recently announced that it is working with the UK’s Centre for Process Innovation on new formulations of ink that could potentially be deposited using existing commercial printing machines, a breakthrough that could make manufacture of QTC screens even more straightforward.

Lussey’s ambitions for the firm are huge, and he anticipates the technology ultimately having an impact wherever a human-interface is required, including wearable technology. ‘In 10 years time I think everybody in the world will be touching a piece of QTC,’ he said. ‘The printed version is opening up all sorts of doors - inside the house, in the car, in the clothing that we’re wearing, in the devices people are carrying you.’

Indeed, echoing Milner’s perception that interest in wearable technology is growing Lussey sees some exciting times ahead. ‘Textiles technology is beginning to enjoy another renaissance - it’s one of these technologies that is so obvious it has to happen, it’s just the speed at which it happens that’s always questionable.’

‘It’s always been a promise that’s never been quite fulfilled, but I think that thanks to the advent of things like Google Glass, the human interface is going to become much more important - a smart phone is looking for all sorts of human interface and you can easily imagine that this is in some way going to be integrated into the clothes of the wearer. It’s got to happen, there’s no question about it. When, is the question, and quite what form it will take, but the technology is there.’

Smart Textiles

Engineers in Nottingham - birthplace of the UK textiles industry - are developing smart electronic yarns that could one day be used on conventional clothing manufacturing equipment

Smart textiles have been “the next big thing” for at least a decade, with analysts regularly predicting a new wave of intelligent clothing that can do everything from controlling your smart phone, to regulating its temperature in response to external conditions.

But despite the promise - and a growing number of compelling fringe technologies - smart textiles are heavily reliant on proprietary manufacturing techniques, and many claim that the high level of investment in new equipment that would be required for volume production has, until now, deterred the clothing industry from really pushing ahead with smart garments.

One possible solution to this commercial bottleneck is currently under development in Nottingham - considered by many to be the birthplace of the UK’s textiles industry - where a team from Nottingham Trent University’s advanced textiles group is developing smart electronic yarns that can be processed using existing clothing manufacturing techniques.

The group is led by Tilak Dias, possibly the world’s only Professor of Knitting.

Dias has been exploring the world of smart textiles for a number of years. His early work focussed on the development of electronics textiles that incorporated conductive fibres into a knitted structure to create sensors and actuators. This has since been commercialised by a spin-out company, Smartlife Technologies, which produces fabric sensors for monitoring vital signs.

‘As you stretch the fabric its electrical resistance will vary. Without incorporating any sensors into it, you can utilise the characteristics of the textile structure to create sensors.’ His group has also developed a polymer yarn that can be used to produce heated textiles and has been commercialised by EXO2, a firm that produces heated clothing for a range of applications.

However, materials produced using the group’s latest technique - which actually integrates tiny electronic components into the fibre of a yarn - could, claims Dias, have considerable advantages over other smart textiles.

Prof Tilak Dias and his team are working on the development of electronic yarns that could be made into clothes using conventional manufacturing equipment

‘Initially with smart textiles, all of the electronic components were just attached onto garments,’ he said. ‘Then people went a bit further and started to integrate conductive fibres to create electrodes and stretch sensors and that means integrating into the fabric manufacture stage. We are going further back down the line and integrating it into the raw material.’

Anxious not to reveal too many of his secrets, Dias nevertheless gave a brief overview of the manufacturing process. ‘We take a fibre filament, a continuous fine fibre, and build our electronic circuit on that. You will have chips and interconnections all made, then we protect the chip area by encapsulating the fibres using a small polymer pod so that you can wash the fabric and subject it to any tensile and torsional forces.’

He added that, as well as potentially making the manufacture of smart textiles more straightforward, the small scale of the electronic components in his yarns will give clothing equipped with the technology more natural textile characteristics than many other smart materials.

Having demonstrated the process in a laboratory, the group is now looking at developing an automated production process that uses pick-and-place manufacturing technology borrowed from the electronics industry to produce the fibres.

The Nottingham team has demonstrated a vest made from an electronic yarn with LEDs
The Nottingham team has demonstrated a vest made from an electronic yarn with LEDs

The group has already used the technique to produce prototype yarns with thermistors and RFID chips, and recently demonstrated an LED vest. But Dias ultimately anticipates a huge variety of applications for the technology. ‘You can put any type of sensor into it,’ he said. ‘It could be used in emergency clothing to detect changes in the environment, there will be medical applications, there will even be aerospace applications: you could use the sensor yarn in composite materials to carry out monitoring.’

Though he declined to reveal any names, Dias reported plenty of interest in his work and said that he has been talking to a number of ‘very big’ semiconductor manufacturers about commercialising the technology.