November 2020

Researchers Develop Smart Suit to Monitor Physiological Data

(a) Illustration of multiple battery-free sensor nodes mounted on the skin and interconnected to a wireless reader through the near-field-enabled clothing. Conventional near-field communication (b) is limited to at most a few centimeters separation between the reader and sensor, while near-field relays (c) enable near-field connectivity up to a meter scale in separation. (d) Photograph of a smartphone wirelessly powering a sensor node over a relay (40cm length).

The current technology used to monitor an athlete’s performance ranges from small wearable fitness trackers to elaborate clinical monitoring equipment. Fitness trackers are compact and lightweight but can only collect data from a single point, which is insufficient to generate meaningful insights. Clinical monitoring equipment uses multiple sensors to capture data from various points on the athlete’s body but is mired in tangles of wires and is too bulky to be used outdoors. Now, a team of researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) Institute for Health Innovation and Technology has developed a smartphone-powered suit capable of providing athletes with physiological data such as their posture, running gait, and body temperature while they are out on the field. Assistant Professor John Ho, PhD, led the team.

The smart suit is made up of web-like circuitry, the pattern of which was designed to relay electromagnetic signals from a nearby smartphone to sensors on the body as far as a meter away; the inductive patterns act as hubs at strategic locations. Custom-made sensors placed at those hubs can transmit data back to the smartphone and are powered by the smartphone’s NFC chip, removing the need for batteries. This reduces a significant amount of weight while enabling the collection of data from multiple areas on the body with minimal impact on the athlete’s performance.

The current prototype can support up to 6 sensors per smartphone while collecting information such as spinal posture, running gait, and body temperature simultaneously. Among these functions, the ability to measure spinal position across multiple nodes is most significant as it is an integral part of developing a solid athletic stance. Good athletic stance can help reduce the risk of injury and optimize performance, as poor posture is biomechanically inefficient. The smart suit can constantly monitor an athlete’s spinal posture to provide real-time data with minimal impact on their performance

“Our smart suit works with most modern smartphones, which act as both the source of power as well as the display to view the sensor data,” said Ho. “The creation of a smart suit that can be powered using built-in smartphone wireless technology is a major breakthrough.”

Moving forward, Ho and his team plan to develop new sensors to increase the range of data collected.

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