Researchers demonstrate wearable electronics to aid health and fashion

Soon you may be wearing your computer, or elements of it, according to a team of researchers and designers at Arizona State University. The era of smart bodysuits is about to begin.

In a demonstration of integrated and embedded electronic sensors, power sources, microfluidic devices and pumps in clothes, the ASU researchers are showing off two versions of their “biometric bodysuit” at NextFest 2004, which is billed as a mini-World's Fair. NextFest 2004, sponsored by Wired Magazine and General Electric, is being held May 14-16 in San Francisco.

Frederic Zenhausern, director of the Applied NanoBioscience Center at ASU's Arizona Biodesign Institute, is co-leading the project that sports both fashion and function. The ASU exhibit features two very dissimilar outfits that utilize embedded electronics and fluidics – one is a "wellness" costume designed in the style of a personal health garment, the second is a camouflage military outfit. Both were developed to show how electronics and fluidics could transform clothes into smart biometric bodysuits that respond to a wearer's environment and vital signs.

“The era of wearable electronics for fashion and health is here,” said Zenhausern. “The biometric bodysuit shows how electronics and fluidics can be incorporated into clothing to perform a wide range of tasks, from highly functional (like dispensing medicine, detecting pathogens or providing environmental awareness for personal safety and protection) to the aesthetic (clothes that change colors or display patterns as downloaded from a website to change the fashionable motifs and designs of a garment). This will be the standard of the future for interactive personal communication systems.”

The ASU researchers call their outfits the Scentsory Chameleon Bodysuit, which act as a “smart second skin” through the integration of printed organic opto-electronics and integrated flexible nano-genetic devices on textiles. They enable real-time remote personal health and medical monitoring into multi-media and sensorial clothing.

Smart military camouflage
The military camouflage outfit is replete with pathogen detectors; a high-density, low-temperature micro fuel cell that acts as a lightweight, long-life power source; and a flexible electroluminescent display. It was designed to show the functionality of embedded electronics and sensors, many of which are being developed in ASU labs.

Zenhausern's group collaborated with Ghassan Jabbour of the University of Arizona in this project. It was Jabbour, who is coming to ASU in June to work with Zenhausern, who was invited to exhibit at NextFest. Jabbour's lab has many years of experience in developing organic light emitting diodes.

The sensor technology includes pathogen detectors that are more reliable and more sensitive than current technology. For example the detectors on the ASU military outfit could take bacteria, destroy it, then amplify the bacteria's DNA and look for certain characteristics of specific pathogens, like anthrax or small pox. Future versions could incorporate sensors to monitor a soldier's vital signs and fatigue, Zenhausern said.

The outfit also includes a flexible electroluminescent display that can be worn around the wrist to provide soldiers with instant awareness communications and updated commands, or environmental information about exposure to any biological or chemical agents. A third technology demonstrated in the outfit is an advanced micro fuel cell. The micro fuel cell would power an individual soldier's equipment for possibly up to a few weeks. It would be smaller and lighter weight than the conventional batteries that generate equivalent power, Zenhausern said.

Smart fashion design
The second outfit employing embedded electronics is a biometric outfit that accomplishes different functionalities. This outfit is the result of a collaboration between Zenhausern, who specializes in nanotechnology and flexible electronics development, working with Galina Mihaleva, a costume designer in the dance department of the ASU Herberger College of Fine Arts, and Jenny Tillotson, a “scentsory designer” based in London. Together, they developed the outfit to show how some of the basic electronic, fluidic and opto-electronic elements could come together in a fashionable design of living clothing.

The prototype is a striking outfit primarily made of clear vinyl and white plastics to show placement of the various electronic and fluidic devices. Zenhausern said an early use could be more than strictly functional.

“What we have shown is the concept of an outfit that could easily deliver a fragrance in response to some type of elevated human condition, like body temperature or heart rate,” Zenhausern explained. “Another application would be the delivery of drugs, say insulin to a diabetic or even insect repellant to any wearer, in response to a queue from the body.”

Developing these two disparate outfits while employing the same technologies helps make the point that there are many possibilities for the Scentsory Chameleon Bodysuit.

“The end result is to promote wellness, safety and protection, focusing on smell, light color therapy and communication, and the impact they have on human performance and security,” Zenhausern said.

NextFest 2004 will include 70 exhibits focused on the areas of communication, design, entertainment, exploration, health, security and transportation. The show is being held at the Festival Pavilion at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco. http://www.asu.edu/

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