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Special Report:
ECEs and Biomedicine

April 2004


Printer-Friendly Version of this article (926K PDF).

Research opportunities for undergraduates
The e-Textile Group has been awarded funding by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support several undergraduate researchers this summer. These undergraduates will apply the programming and hardware skills learned in the classroom to develop new e-textile applications. Depending on each student’s background and the group’s needs, projects will range from integrating new sensors onto e-textile garments, programming a distributed e-textile system, and modeling the effect of garment motion on e-textile performance.

When style and comfort are not enough

The Hokie Suit: stylish, comfortable, and healthy
Sporting a stylish orange and maroon pants and vest outfit, graduate student Josh Edmison models the ultimate in wearable computing. The Virginia Tech e-Textile team is developing prototype clothing that will eventually monitor vital signs and motion for monitoring health and preventing falls. The fabric feels like a soft burlap and is quite comfortable, according to Edmison. “And this is just the crude proof of concept,” he said.

Computer engineers are developing clothes that monitor health

Computer engineering professors Mark Jones and Tom Martin are developing clothes that can monitor chronic illness through body temperature, blood pressure, heart rates, breathing and even the way we walk. They dream of garments that can trigger paralyzed limbs to move and that can smooth the motions of patients with Parkinson’s Disease or Multiple Sclerosis.

Their team in the department’s e-Textile Laboratory is merging computers and clothing. They are integrating ultra-fine, detergent-proof wiring into the very weave of the fabric and attaching the necessary miniature processors, sensors, and actuators.

Reducing Falls Among the Elderly
The team is developing a proof-of-concept gait-mapper outfit: a pair of pants for measuring and monitoring how a person walks. They hope the garment can help reduce falls among the elderly as well as help monitor and measure progression of diseases such as Parkinson’s, in which patients develop distinctive gait patterns. In addition, such pants could help doctors and patients more accurately assess the response to medical intervention and therapy in diseases like Parkinson's.

“We have read reports that nearly 33 percent of the elderly living at home will fall each year, and about one in 40 will be hospitalized,” Jones said. “Of those admitted to the hospital after a fall, only about 50 percent will be alive one year later. That makes falling a critical danger to their health – a danger that can be reduced through careful monitoring. The monitoring must be inexpensive, comfortable, and easy to use, however.”

The e-textiles team is working with Industrial Systems Engineering professor and gait-analysis expert Thurmon Lockhart. “We would like to know how a person is walking: for example, what is the speed and length of stride,” Jones said. “These gait measurements are a good indicator of a number of medical conditions, including muscle weakness, strokes, and Parkin-son’s disease. A person with gait problems has a greatly increased risk for falling,” he added.

At present, detailed gait analysis is conducted in video-based locomotion laboratories. Set-up time for each patient typically takes an hour. A technician checks the video frame by frame. “Not only is this time-consuming, but the patient is not in a comfortable environment and may not be walking normally,” Jones said.

Comparing Cloth to Videos: The Hokie suit’s ability to measure a person’s stride is being compared to a video gait measurement system in Virginia Tech’s Locomotion Laboratory. If e-textile clothing can equal the measuring precision of video systems, doctors can more easily get the information they need to treat patients and help the elderly avoid falling.

“We are working to build a pair of pants that gives the same accuracy as the expensive, hard-to-use laboratory equipment,” Martin said. “It’s comparatively easy to measure on video, because you have the ground as a frame of reference. With our stand-alone pants, we need to measure indirectly.”

The team has incorporated accelerometers, piezoelectric films, and microcontrollers and has developed a technique to compensate for the foot changing direction. “We can calculate the stride length using the pants,” Martin said, adding that they are now conducting side-by-side comparisons of their technique and the video system in Tech’s locomotion laboratory.

Health Monitoring
Gait analysis is just the first step for Virginia Tech’s e-textiles in the health field. The team is also working on a vest that can automatically measure and record vital signs, such as heart rate, temperature, and blood pressure.

“If doctors can evaluate symptoms during normal, everyday activities, then they can make better decisions and more precisely target and monitor the treatment,” Jones explained. Measurements in clinical offices do not reflect a patient’s entire situation, he added. “For example, when you get your blood pressure checked at the doctor’s office, it does not reflect the whole picture.” Single, occasional readings can be wildly inaccurate and doctors must rely on patients’ notoriously inaccurate memories and observation skills.

Context Awareness
The Virginia Tech team envisions its garments to not only monitor the symptoms, but also to help determine what the patient is doing at the time. This would help determine whether or not to discount a reading. “If a doctor sees a spike in blood pressure, it would be good to know if the patient was running from danger or sitting at a desk, “ Jones said.

Concerned that video monitoring systems can be invasive of privacy, as well as time consuming to analyze, the team developed a context awareness system that uses the gait-analysis pants. “With our technique, the pants can let the monitors know when the patient is moving, which is important for recording data, and for eliminating any noise introduced in the reading from the motion,” Martin said.

Zapping Muscles to Action
As he ventures further into e-textiles for improved health, Jones dreams of shocking people – literally. “I heard about the concept from an e-textile group at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich,” he said. “I’d like us eventually to be able to apply the right impulse to a muscle at the right time and right interval to help people move who ordinarily can’t.” Such a system could help move paralyzed limbs or be used by patients who need to smooth out jerky motions.

The team believes that e-textiles can prove to be an ideal health tool. “Continual monitoring and treatment must be comfortable, easy, and unobtrusive,” Martin said. “Everybody is used to clothes, and if all you have to do is put on some comfortable clothes to improve your health, you’ll do it,” he said.

Challenges Of Cloth Computers
In addition to the inherent challenges of developing autonomous, mobile monitoring and communications in continually changing environments, e-textiles present unique computing difficulties, according to Thomas Martin and Mark Jones of the ECE e-Textile group.

“E-textiles could be called ‘extreme distributed computers’,” Martin said. “They are physically spread over a relatively smaller space, but are more dependent on the computation location. They have lower communication bandwidth, and less available energy.” These are major considerations in determining any e-textile computing architecture, he added.

“Communication is a big issue,” he said. “Can we consistently build low-power, reliable communication networks in fabric? Should we consider Bluetooth-style radios in addition to the wired network?”

Challenges of e-textile computing also include optimizing energy usage when both power sources and users are distributed throughout the system, and allocating processing and sensing tasks based on the motion of a user and the environment.

“We are facing a number of challenges, including manufacturing, and developing or adapting clothing design tools,” Jones said. “Then there are the questions of what software services are needed for most applications and can they be supported over a range of fabrics?"

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Last updated: Tue, Jun 8, 2004