Latest smart device: your shirt, which, with a new material, could measure your heart rate

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By Clare Duffy, CNN Business

A group of researchers has developped a new material, they say, is as soft as cotton but as strong as Kevlar and as conductive as many metals. It can be worn and washed like normal clothes and could eventually turn sportswear into smart wearables.

So-called “carbon nanotube wires” work similarly to wires on an EKG monitor, which measures heart rhythms to detect heart disease. But instead of having to be applied to the skin, they can be sewn into a t-shirt and worn like normal sportswear, according to one. new study of research in a laboratory at the Brown School of Engineering at Rice University. And unlike threads, they say threads can move comfortably with the wearer and be washed, stretched and worn over and over without breaking.

While probably a long way from being put into production for consumers, the material could eventually help replace bulky Holter ECG monitors in medical settings and heart rate monitoring watches and chest straps for athletes, in addition to other potential uses.

“Another interesting application of this technology is that we can use it for next generation military uniforms,” ​​Lauren Taylor, Rice University graduate student and lead author of the study, said in a statement. video on the product. “Not only can we use this material for the ECG electrodes, but we can also use them as antennas so that we can track the location of military personnel. “

Global spending on wearable devices is expected to increase 18% to $ 81.5 billion in 2021, and a further 15% in 2022, according to Gartner. Many tech companies have invested in building similar capabilities in devices – Apple Watch introduced heart rate monitoring in 2018 and added other medical features, and in 2019 Google announcement plans to buy FitBit, a deal struck earlier this year.

The Rice University lab first developed carbon nanotube fiber in 2013 and investigated its use in medical procedures, such as cochlear implants for hearing loss and to repair damaged hearts. But at the time, the original filaments (about 22 microns wide) were too fine to be used by a standard sewing machine.

For this latest iteration, the researchers worked with a string maker to weave the filaments together in a material similar to regular sewing thread that could be sewn into sportswear. The resulting “smart” shirt provides “soft, wearable and dry sensors for non-invasive and continuous EKG monitoring,” according to the study. (However, it’s worth noting that existing ECG monitors have improved to become quite comfortable and non-intrusive already.)

With a few modifications, clothing with these fibers could eventually be able to track other vital signs, the researchers said.

However, “smart” shirts are not entirely without threads. An example shows the nanotube fibers in the jacket which transmit signals to the wires at the bottom which transmit the information via Bluetooth technology to a computer.

“You just can’t find soft, flexible, threadlike materials that are comfortable to the touch, that you can work with, that you can build a bridge or a power line with, but you can also run through a sewing machine.” said Oliver Dewy, a member of the research team. “Nothing else behaves like this.”

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