What 'Smart Fabrics' Mean for the Future of Health

The age of wearable technology is upon us, and the field isn't totally dominated by big-name players like Google and Sony. The 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, which took place Jan. 7 though 10, featured up-and-coming technological innovations, including smart bracelets, shirts, socks, and even onesies. 

Wearable technology encompasses a wide variety of products, from novelty toys to lifesaving devices. Many of these products rely on micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) to detect bodily movements, temperature, and other changes. 

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Fashion with a Purpose

While some of the technologies may be out of reach for the average consumer, others show real-world promise.

Many products are targeted toward athletes, including the Sensoria line of fitness gear from Heapsylon. The line includes a smart sock that coaches runners in real time via a mobile app, and both a bra and a T-shirt with heart-monitoring capabilities.

Sports enthusiasts could also benefit from the CheckLight mesh cap. Developed by Reebok and electronics company MC10, the cap assesses the severity of blows to the head and alerts people nearby to check the wearer for serious injury. 

Runners might enjoy the new water-whisking fabric created by biomedical engineers at the University of California, Davis that mimics the way human skin perspires by whisking away excess sweat. 

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And parents can rest easier with the help of products for infants, including the Mimo baby monitor onesie, which tracks a baby's breathing, movement, and temperature with a built-in sensor to help prevent sudden infant death syndrome.  

Dr. Shai Gozani, CEO of NeuroMetrix, envisions even more possibilities for wearable technology. 

He developed the SENSUS Pain Management System, which uses electrical stimulation in a band-like device to ease suffering caused by diabetic neuropathy.

“The notion of smart wearable technology is expanding,” Gozani said. His device goes beyond monitoring health data to providing much-needed relief.

“It’s exciting for people who have health needs because it makes delivering therapy easier and more successful for patients," he said. "That’s the ultimate desired outcome.”

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Overcoming Setbacks

Not everyone is thrilled with the idea of wearable technology. In a recent survey by Accenture, two-thirds of Brits said that they were uninterested in some of the most popular wearable devices. For many, the concept of wearable technology is a fad, not a necessary advancement.

But Dr. Miko Cakmak, a professor of polymer engineering at the University of Akron, and director of the Center for Multifunctional Polymer Nanomaterials and Devices, sees public opinion turning around.

"Eventually they will be on board as the prices of these items plummet as the roll-to-roll manufacturing that makes most of these devices will be of much lower cost than the silicon based electronics," he said. And his university is making the most of this opportunity. 

"At the University of Akron we are very actively developing new processes for functional components that will go into flexible or wearable electronics markets," Cakmak said. 

The excitement may not be widespread, yet, but the further commercialization of wearable technology may help convince wary consumers of the value of smart products to help take control of their well-being.

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