Measuring a person's movements and poses, smart clothes could be used for athletic training, rehabilitation, or health-monitoring.
In recent years there have been exciting breakthroughs in wearable technologies, like smartwatches that can monitor your breathing and blood oxygen levels.
But what about a wearable that can detect how you move as you do a physical activity or play a sport, and could potentially even offer feedback on how to improve your technique?
And, as a major bonus, what if the wearable were something you'd actually already be wearing, like a shirt of a pair of socks?
That's the idea behind a new set of MIT-designed clothing that use special fibers to sense a person's movement via touch. Among other things, the researchers showed that their clothes can actually determine things like if someone is sitting, walking, or doing particular poses.
The group from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) says that their clothes could be used for athletic training and rehabilitation. With patients' permission, they could even help passively monitor the health of residents in assisted-care facilities and determine if, for example, someone has fallen or is unconscious.
The researchers have developed a range of prototypes, from socks and gloves to a full vest. The team's "tactile electronics" use a mix of more typical textile fibers alongside a small amount of custom-made functional fibers that sense pressure from the person wearing the garment.
According to CSAIL graduate student Yiyue Luo, a key advantage of the team's design is that, unlike many existing wearable electronics, theirs can be incorporated into traditional large-scale clothing production. The machine-knitted tactile textiles are soft, stretchable, breathable, and can take a wide range of forms.
"Traditionally it's been hard to develop a mass-production wearable that provides high-accuracy data across a large number of sensors," says Luo, lead author on a new paper about the project that is appearing in this month's edition of Nature Electronics. "When you manufacture lots of sensor arrays, some of them will not work and some of them will work worse than others, so we developed a self-correcting mechanism that uses a self-supervised machine learning algorithm to recognize and adjust when certain sensors in the design are off-base."
The team's clothes have a range of capabilities. Their socks predict motion by looking at how different sequences of tactile footprints correlate to different poses as the user transitions from one pose to another. The full-sized vest can also detect the wearers' pose, activity, and the texture of the contacted surfaces.
The authors imagine a coach using the sensor to analyze people's postures and give suggestions on improvement. It could also be used by an experienced athlete to record their posture so that beginners can learn from them. In the long term, they even imagine that robots could be trained to learn how to do different activities using data from the wearables.
"Imagine robots that are no longer tactilely blind, and that have 'skins' that can provide tactile sensing just like we have as humans," says corresponding author Wan Shou, a postdoc at CSAIL. "Clothing with high-resolution tactile sensing opens up a lot of exciting new application areas for researchers to explore in the years to come."
The paper was co-written by MIT professors Antonio Torralba, Wojciech Matusik, and Tomás Palacios, alongside PhD students Yunzhu Li, Pratyusha Sharma, and Beichen Li; postdoc Kui Wu; and research engineer Michael Foshey.
The work was partially funded by Toyota Research Institute.
Light-emitting tattoos could indicate dehydration in athletes or health conditions in hospital patients.
- Researchers at UCL and IIT have created a temporary tattoo that contains the same OLED technology that is used in TVs and smartphones.
- This technology has already been successfully applied to various materials including glass, food items, plastic, and paper packaging.
- This advance in technology isn't just about aesthetics. "In healthcare, they could emit light when there is a change in a patient's condition - or, if the tattoo was turned the other way into the skin, they could potentially be combined with light-sensitive therapies to target cancer cells, for instance," explains senior author Franco Cacialli of UCL.
Scientists at University College London (UCL) and the IIT (Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia) have created a temporary tattoo that contains the same light-emitting technology used in TVs and smartphone screens.
The technology uses organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) and is applied in the same way as simple water-transfer tattoos. The OLEDs are fabricated onto a temporary tattoo paper and then transferred to a new surface by being pressed onto it and dabbed with water.
According to the research, these OLED devices being developed are 2.3 micrometers thick in total (less than one 400th of a millimeter) and about one-third of the length of a single red blood cell. The device consists of an electroluminescent polymer (a polymer that emits light when an electric field is applied) that is placed in between electrodes. An insulating layer is then placed in between the electrodes and the commercial tattoo paper.
This process has already been successfully applied to various materials.
Once the research team had perfected the technology, they applied the tattoo-able OLEDs (which emit green light) onto various surfaces including a pane of glass, a plastic bottle, an orange, and paper packaging. The first OLEDs were used in a flatscreen television more than 20 years ago, and now, through this proof-of-concept study, "smart tattoos" may be a thing of the (very near) future.
Why “smart tattoos” could be beneficial
OLEDs are used to create digital displays in devices (such as television screens computer monitors, smartphones, etc).
Credit: Hanna on Adobe Stock
While this is perhaps the most obvious way you could use light-emitting tattoo technology, the world of tattoo art and design could see a huge surge in new exciting trends based on light-emitting tattoo technology.
It's not just about looks—this approach provides a quick and easy method of transferring OLEDs onto practically any surface.
OLEDs are used to create digital displays in devices (such as television screens computer monitors, smartphones, etc). While some may get OLED and LED confused, they are quite different, with OLED displays emitting visible light and therefore being able to be used without a backlight. The breakthrough process of being able to transfer OLEDs onto virtually any surface can be useful in many different applications and settings.
Light-emitting tattoos could be used to indicate (and potentially even treat) various health conditions in the future.
The eventual implementation or use of OLED tattoos could be combined with other tattoo electronics to, for instance, emit light when an athlete is dehydrated, or when a person is being exposed to too much sun and is prone to sunburn.
"In healthcare, they could emit light when there is a change in a patient's condition - or, if the tattoo was turned the other way into the skin, they could potentially be combined with light-sensitive therapies to target cancer cells, for instance." - Professor Franco Cacialli (UCL)
OLED tattoo devices
Credit: Barsotti - Italian Institute of Technology
Similarly, this technology could be used on the packaging of various items to give us more information about them.
For example, OLEDs could be tattooed onto the packaging of a fruit to signal when the product is passed its expiration date or will soon become inedible.
In reality, creating light-emitting tattoo technology doesn't have to be expensive.
Professor Franco Cacialli explains to Eurekalert: "The tattooable OLEDs that we have demonstrated for the first time can be made at scale and very cheaply. They can be combined with other forms of tattoo electronics for a very wide range of possible uses. These could be for fashion - for instance, providing glowing tattoos and light-emitting fingernails. In sports, they could be combined with a sweat sensor to signal dehydration."
"Our proof-of-concept study is the first step. Future challenges will include encapsulating the OLEDs as much as possible to stop them from degrading quickly through contact with air, as well as integrating the device with a battery or supercapacitor."
Allergies might never be a concern again.
- University of Portsmouth researchers held play sessions with real dogs and their biomimetic counterparts.
- The more time school children spent with the robot dog, the higher their opinion of him.
- Robotic dogs could offer an entirely new line of emotional support animals.
In 2018 a woman tried to board a plane at Newark International Airport with her emotional support animal—a peacock. That didn't fly; well, neither of them flew that day. Still, the term "emotional support animal" has been exploited by travelers attempting to transport a variety of animals in the not-so-friendly skies, including pigs, turkeys, squirrels, baby kangaroos, and miniature horses.
The skies became even less friendly to this trend when the federal government recently limited pets on flights to dogs, giving the struggling airline industry a bit of good news in an otherwise devastating year.
But what if the kangaroo was a robot?
Let's not get ahead of ourselves. If we're considering robot support "animals," we'll have to settle for dogs for the time being.
That's the consensus from a group of researchers at the University of Portsmouth. In a new study, published in the International Journal of Social Robotics, first author Olivia Barber and colleagues argue that robotic dogs could soon replace real canines as emotional support animals—and will likely have an easier time and get fewer malicious stares when boarding planes.
The team brought two real dogs—a Jack Russell-Poodle mix and a Labrador retriever—alongside a biomimetic dog to visit a group of 34 children in West Sussex. The 11- and 12-year-olds had two sessions, one with the real-life canines, and a second with the robot, which was developed by Consequential Robotics. While the kids stroked animals equally, they actually interacted with the robot more.
Credit: goodmoments / Adobe Stock
Study supervisor, Dr Leanne Proops, knows the emotional impact that real dogs have on children and adults alike. Yet many people suffer from allergies, while others are on high alert for diseases transmitted across species. There's also liability concerns; lawsuits over biting dogs happen. And, of course, the expense of animals is prohibitive to some. Robots could fill a void.
"This preliminary study has found that biomimetic robots -- robots that mimic animal behaviours -- may be a suitable replacement in certain situations and there are some benefits to using them over a real dog."
Move over Animal Assisted Interventions. Welcome to Robot Assisted Interventions.
As the authors note, robot pets already exist. A robotic seal named Paro is designed to keep seniors company. Social robots help stroke victims during rehabilitation and have proven useful in communicating with autistic children.
Despite the fascination, this story doesn't end like the film "Her." The pre-teens preferred the real animals, not the metal imposter. That said, the more time they spent with the robot, the fonder they became of him. The team chose dogs for this pilot study given their ubiquity and our longstanding positive relationship with them.
As part of the study, each participant filled out a questionnaire about their biophilic beliefs. Interestingly, animistic beliefs played a role—how willing they were to ascribe agency to the robot. The "realer" the robot felt, the more positive the affect.
Moving forward, robot support animals could help people unable to care for or be around actual animals. As Proops concludes,
"This is a small-scale study, but the results show that interactive robotic animals could be used as a good comparison to live dogs in research, and a useful alternative to traditional animal therapy."
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His new book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
Turns out chitin is quite useful when you need a wrench.
- Researchers at the Singapore University of Technology and Design constructed Mars-ready tools in preparation for colonization.
- The team chose chitin as a cheap and abundant material to fashion a wrench and habitat.
- Chitin occurs naturally in arthropod exoskeletons, fungus, and fish scales.
In 1963, a spaceship crash-landed on Earth. The vehicle was carrying one Martian, a very man-like creature who would be called Uncle Martin. He was so named by Tim O'Hara, a local newspaper reporter that discovered him. Incredibly, the martian spoke English.
Before becoming the Incredible Hulk, actor Bill Bixby played the role of Tim, whose "uncle" (Ray Waltson) arrived intact from the Red Planet, in "My Favorite Martian." Both "martian" and "Martin" derive from the word Mars, the Roman god of war and, before that, the fourth planet from the sun.
We've long been fascinated with Mars and the idea of getting there. There's more talk about colonizing that planet than terraforming our moon. Current plans have humans using the Moon as a weigh station to leap from. NASA is currently investigating the possibility of ancient life on Mars, though more forward-thinking researchers are now building tools for our arrival.
A team led by Javier Fernandez of Singapore University of Technology and Design has found a candidate for construction: chitin. In a new research article, published in PLOS One, the researchers suggested using this organic polymer to fashion tools and build shelter.
Chitin is a derivative of glucose and is comparable in function to keratin. Its structure was discovered by Albert Hofmann in 1929, nearly a decade before the Swiss chemist stumbled into LSD and went on his famous bicycle trip. Agriculturists have since explored its function as a soil fertilizer, while chitin has long been used to thicken and stabilize foods. The polymer occurs naturally in arthropod exoskeletons, fungus, and fish scales.
As Silicon Valley's elite set and government agencies dream of crewing a mission to Mars by the late 2030s, Fernandez and crew want to offer practical advice for manufacturing technologies needed when colonizing a planet. As they write, "a sustainable extraterrestrial settlement must be a resource-efficient, closed ecological system."
In this handout released by NASA, a Mars landscape is seen in a picture taken by the panoramic camera on the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit January 8, 2003.
Credit:NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Cornell University via Getty Images
Then there's the matter of cost. You can't simply take Earth's wares and think they'll work on Mars. If you're looking for the most bang for your buck, they believe they've identified a winner.
"Chitin is a paradigmatic example of an organic matrix of mineralized composites; it is the second most abundant organic polymer on Earth (after cellulose) and biology's recurrent solution to forming structural components."
Even better, no specialized equipment will need to be spun up. Chitin's ubiquity makes it easy to source. The team combined chitosan with minerals akin to Martian soil, designing a wrench as well as a full-scale habitat.
The team recognizes the challenges of building materials designed for an alien civilization, but feel it's better to start now than for those brave explorers to arrive with shoddy tents. They were able to rapidly and inexpensively produce these products, which they believe could aid in "our transformation into an interplanetary species." Fernandez continues:
"The technology was originally developed to create circular ecosystems in urban environments, but due to its efficiency, it is also the most efficient and scalable method to produce materials in a closed artificial ecosystem in the extremely scarce environment of a lifeless planet or satellite."
The emphasis on sustainability and expense is important as we prepare to leave this planet. Hopefully, the martians will appreciate the effort.
New research on ankle exoskeletons show promising results.
- New research from Stanford finds that motor-powered ankle exoskeletons conserve 15 percent of energy expenditure when running.
- Spring-powered exoskeletons without motors actually made running harder.
- The researchers hope to develop better spring-powered models moving forward.
Humans were born to run, as journalist and running fanatic Christopher McDougall phrased it. Bipedalism offers many advantages over quadrupeds, including the ability to better communicate over longer distances and improved cardiovascular skills. Humans are relatively lackluster over short distances; since our organs don't crash into our lungs when we run, as they do with quadrupeds, we are master marathoners.
There are still trade-offs. Thanks to our upright posture, we have weak necks—misbalances in our ankles and knees often lead to neck problems. Further down the chain, running can lead to chronic knee problems and labrum tears; I've suffered both while training for half-marathons. The impact force of repetitive striking can result in chronic lower back problems, especially if runners don't stretch and practice mobility routines. We expend a lot of energy when running; our body pays the toll.
Still, running is a natural activity that, according to McDougall, excite evolutionary senses of fear and pleasure deeply embedded in our biology. Too bad our anatomy doesn't always agree.
Researchers have long sought new means for alleviating energy output while running. A fascinating new study on exoskeleton emulators, published in the journal Science Robotics, might have gotten us one step closer.
When McDougall's book was published in 2009, more Americans were running. As the researchers (based at Stanford but including experts from Carnegie Mellon, Ghent University, and Nike) in this new study note, only 25 percent of Americans aged 18-29 reported running even once in 2018. Participation for adults aged 30-49 dropped 20 percent that year. They cite time commitments and negative associations to exercise as two leading causes. Given the high likelihood of injury due to running, it makes sense that there's hesitancy.
Stanford researchers find ankle exoskeleton makes running easier
Mindset matters. Running is a birthright and offers great cardiovascular conditioning. Yet there has to be some excitement around it. As McDougall writes, "if you thought [running] was only a means to an end—an investment in becoming faster, skinnier, richer—then why stick with it if you weren't getting enough quo for your quid?"
You have to love running to dedicate yourself to it. If you're in pain, that's a tall order.
The researchers tested two modes of running assistance: motor-powered and spring-based exoskeletons. An exoskeleton is an external skeleton that supports an animal's body, such as insects and mollusks. In human terms, they are expensive devices designed to slow down fatigue. In this study, ankle exoskeletons were tethered to motors as volunteers ran on a treadmill.
Eleven competitive runners were divided into three groups: an "optimized power" group, the motor-based cohort that boosted the runners' strides; "optimized spring-like," the group wearing the exoskeleton sans motor power; and the control group, "zero torque mode," runners wearing an exoskeleton with none of the features initiated. A final control element was runners wearing a neutral running shoe with no exoskeleton.
Optimized spring-like and Optimized powered assistance resulted in metabolic reductions of 2.1 and 24.7%, respectively, compared with zero-torque mode, while running at 2.7 m s−1. Optimized powered assistance resulted in an improvement in running economy of 14.6% compared with running in normal shoes, whereas Optimized spring-like assistance resulted in an 11.1% increase in the energy cost of running. Error bars indicate SD. *P < 0.05.
Kirby A. Witte, et al.
The motors are an important component. Wearing an exoskeleton with the motor switched off actually increased physical demand by 13 percent. With the motors purring, the demand was 15 percent less than when running without an exoskeleton.
Spring-based exoskeletons did not fare nearly as well, as it increased energy output by 11 percent than running without the gear. Stanford's Steve Collins, lead author of the paper, was surprised by this result, noting,
"When people run, their legs behave a lot like a spring, so we were very surprised that spring-like assistance was not effective. We all have an intuition about how we run or walk but even leading scientists are still discovering how the human body allows us to move efficiently."
(A) Exoskeleton emulator testbed. A participant runs on a treadmill while wearing bilateral ankle exoskeletons actuated by motors located off-board with mechanical power transmitted through flexible Bowden cables. (B) Ankle exoskeleton. The ankle exoskeleton attaches to the user by a strap above the calf, a rope through the heel of the shoe, and a carbon fiber plate embedded in the toe of the shoe. The inner Bowden cable terminates on a 3D printed titanium heel spur that is instrumented with strain gauges for direct measurement of applied torque. A magnetic encoder measures ankle angle. (C) Participant running on the treadmill with bilateral ankle exoskeletons. Metabolic data are collected through a respiratory system by measuring the oxygen and carbon dioxide content of the participant's expired gasses.
Kirby A. Witte, et al.
On the plus side, spring-based exoskeletons are much cheaper than motor-based models. The researchers are hoping to design a more energy-efficient model. Motor-powered models work great when tethered to treadmills but are unrealistic for road and trail runners, so an affordable spring-based version would be a boon for outdoor runners.
Spring-based exoskeletons mimic the natural spring of running. As with our normal running pattern, it stores energy only to unleash it when pushing off from the toes. With the help of a motor, the foot is able to extend at the ankle at the end of the step. Not quite Iron Man, but as Stanford graduate student Delaney Miller says of these trials,
"Powered assistance took off a lot of the energy burden of the calf muscles. It was very springy and very bouncy compared to normal running. Speaking from experience, that feels really good. When the device is providing that assistance, you feel like you could run forever."
Collins says this is one of the biggest improvements in energy economy ever made in running. It will likely not affect pro marathoners that much, but for novice runners or those susceptible to injury, it could ease the pain and remove a few seconds from your mile time.
Yes, humans were born to run. As it turns out, some of us just do it a little better with assistance. If consumer-priced exoskeletons hit the market, the statistics on running enthusiasts might swing in an upward direction. If the result is decreased energy expenditure, which by extension lowers the risk of injury, it's a win for all of us bipeds.