Wired for Motion

Computer Engineering Professor Tom Martin believes that electronic textiles (e-textiles) can improve medical monitoring, safety, and consumer applications, while possibly giving a much-needed boost to Southside Virginia's struggling textile industry.

E-textiles — the most flexible of wearable computers — are a blend of electronics and fabrics. The specialty fabrics have woven-in wiring and can accommodate batteries, sensors, and circuits.

Using e-textiles, clothing, draperies, tents and other cloth items can help monitor a patient’s vital signs, guide or measure movement of the disabled, and help firefighters navigate smoky buildings, among other activities.

    ECE professor Tom Martin working on an e-textiles loom

Although e-textiles are still an emerging technology, Martin and his colleagues have firm specifications.

“Ideally, this wearable computer should be always available to the user, should not interfere with the user’s movements, and should be invisible to those around the user,” Martin explained. “We want users to perceive them as clothing rather than computers, leading to greater compliance for medical and industrial applications and greater acceptability for consumer applications. E-textiles should be durable, long-running, easy to use, and comfortable."

The Virginia Tech e-textiles team has two more conditions: E-textiles must be affordable and able to be processed by the U.S. textile industry using existing manufacturing techniques and equipment.

“Weaving textiles has become a high-technology, high-investment industry and is no longer labor intensive,” Martin said. “This is an ideal combination for a manufacturing process to remain in the United States. The addition of e-textiles to the product line could give a competitive edge to U.S. textile manufacturers, leading to the retention and addition of jobs in economically depressed regions that have suffered textile plant closings and cut-backs, such as the Southside region of Virginia.”

Researchers in Virginia Tech's e-textiles laboratory are weaving textiles with embedded wiring, sensors, actuators, and processing elements. Their research includes textiles for health monitoring, monitoring physical therapy, monitoring gait, and sound detection and localization.

In 2005, Martin won a $400,000, five-year CAREER award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to pursue advances so that e-textile garments can function robustly in applications for people of all ages, plus meet his manufacturability and affordability goals.

The project builds on recent prototype successes from the E-Textiles Laboratory, co-directed by Martin and Mark Jones. Their team has developed a 30-foot fabric acoustic array to detect the location of vehicles, a glove to demonstrate typing without a keyboard, a garment for mapping a building using ultrasound, an acoustic beamformer shirt to localize sound, a software simulation system for designing electronic fabric, and a vest-and-pants outfit to monitor heart rate and motion.

The CAREER project goals include improving the technology so that e-garments can be mass-produced instead of custom-designed. Martin’s team is also developing the ability for e-garments to sense their own shapes as well as the positions and locations of their sensing and processing elements.

“We want the garment to track the location of the electronics so that it can configure itself and adapt to changes in how the user is wearing the garment,” Martin said. “When a user rolls up her sleeves, the electronics should adapt.”

He described how garments should not have to be skin-tight to accomplish their tasks and that eventually, he hopes to solve the difficult problem of accounting for the draping and flowing of clothes.



Virginia Tech e-textiles group

    ECE professor Tom Martin working on an e-textile loom

Researchers are involved with developing theory and technology for wearable computers and large-scale sensor networks using fabrics that have electronics and interconnections woven into them.

For more information, visit Virginia Tech's e-textiles website.

Monitoring health

    The Hokie Suit- orange and maroon electronic textiles clothing prototype

These high-tech fabrics made into clothes could help the wearer improve their health by:

  • reducing falls among the elderly;
  • helping to monitor and measure disease progression; and
  • making it possible for patients to move paralyzed limbs; and
  • tracking direction, measuring joint angles, and velocity.

Learn more about the engineering team's developments and see prototype clothing.

Related projects

    A close-up look at the electronic fabric

These projects are taking aim at possibilities in functional integration. They include:

  • buttons that can communicate with the fabric to which they are attached;
  • gloves that can sense motion and determine keystrokes; and
  • mapper garmets that can chart a room or building floorplan.

Learn more about these and other projects being researched in the E-Textiles Laboratory.

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