The machine washable garments can be made to fit close to the body of the person wearing them, said the team at MIT who believe their breakthrough could be used for monitoring people who are ill, either at home or in the hospital, as well as athletes or astronauts.
"We can have any commercially available electronic parts or custom lab-made electronics embedded within the textiles that we wear every day, creating conformable garments," said Canan Dagdeviren, the LG Electronics Career Development Assistant Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at MIT. "These are customisable, so we can make garments for anyone who needs to have some physical data from their body like temperature, respiration rate, and so forth."
Dagdeviren is the senior author of a paper describing the new material in npj Flexible Electronics.
"The textile is not electrically functional. It's just a passive element of our garment so that you can wear the devices comfortably and conformably during your daily activities," Dagdeviren said in a statement. "Our main goal was to measure the physical activity of the body in terms of temperature, respiration, acceleration, all from the same body part, without requiring any fixture or any tape."
According to MIT, the embedded electronic sensors consist of long, flexible strips that are encased in epoxy and then woven into narrow channels in the fabric. These channels have small openings that allow the sensors to be exposed to the skin. For this study, the researchers designed a prototype shirt with 30 temperature sensors and an accelerometer that can measure the wearer's movement, heart rate, and breathing rate. The garment can then transmit this data wirelessly to a smartphone.
The researchers chose a polyester blend for its moisture-wicking properties and its ability to conform to the skin. In 2019 several of the researchers spent time at a factory in Shenzhen, China, to experiment with mass-producing the material.
"From the outside it looks like a normal T-shirt, but from the inside, you can see the electronic parts which are touching your skin," Dagdeviren said. "It compresses on your body, and the active parts of the sensors are exposed to the skin."
The researchers tested their prototype shirts on gym users, allowing them to monitor changes in temperature, heart rate, and breathing rate. Because the sensors cover a large surface area of the body, the team could observe temperature changes in different parts of the body, and how those changes correlate with each other.
Dagdeviren plans to develop other types of garments and is working on incorporating additional sensors for monitoring blood oxygen levels and other indicators of health.
This kind of sensing could be useful for personalised telemedicine, allowing doctors to remotely monitor patients while patients remain at home, Dagdeviren said, or to monitor astronauts' health while they are in space.