Dartmouth's smart fabric sensing technology offers support for performance coaching and physical therapy. Source: Dartmouth DartNets LabDartmouth's smart fabric sensing technology offers support for performance coaching and physical therapy. Source: Dartmouth DartNets Lab

A smart fabric developed at Dartmouth College could help athletes and physical therapy patients monitor their joint movements for better performance and accurate treatments.

The new fabric sensing system is put on a flexible motion capture textile. The textile is lightweight, cheap, washable and comfortable. The fabrics can be worn all the time for continuous sensing.

Accurate joint monitoring is important for performance coaching and physical therapy. Constant joint monitoring allows coaches and doctors to make a personalized training program for the person wearing the device. For example, arm angle is very important in throwing the perfect pitch. Long-term sensing devices, like the new smart fabric, can help the player and the coach analyze the arm movement and make adjustments for the perfect throw.

This kind of long-term monitoring technology could eliminate the need for 24-hour observation periods. Current monitoring technology requires heavy control of the environment and rigid sensors stop the wearer from moving naturally. Current monitoring technologies are also expensive, while the new smart fabric monitoring technology costs around $50.

The new smart fabric is made of nylon, elastic fiber and yarns plated with a silver layer for conductivity. The team created two prototypes to fit the elbow. Both prototypes had a microcontroller that can be easily detached to download data on fabric resistance.

The smart sensing system relies on two kinds of fabrics. The stretchable fabrics sense skin deformation, while pressure fabrics sense pressure during joint motion. The researchers used the data gathered from the fabrics to determine if the wearer’s joint needs to be adjusted.

To test the prototypes, the team outfitted 10 participants with a prototype. The participants wore the prototypes while going through various arm movements. The researchers found that the fabric has a low median of error of 9.69% when reconstructing elbow joint angles. The participants reported that the fabric was comfortable, flexible and easy to use. The researchers also tested the fabric’s durability and the results showed that the fabric is fully washable. The researchers detected a very low level of deterioration in performance after multiple washes.

The fabric needs to be further developed before becoming commercially available. The two prototypes fit on only the elbow, but the team hopes to develop the fabric to be worn all over the body. They want to make the fabric wrinkle free, which would lead to an increase in performance. The microcontroller can be miniaturized with further development.

A paper on this technology was published in the Proceedings of the ACM on Interactive, Mobile, Wearable and Ubiquitous Technologies.