Wearable Technology has seen its fair share of disruptive innovation over the past year. Whether it’s Ralph Lauren’s PoloTech Shirt that measures performance during workouts or the Bluetooth-enabled GPS navigating Lechal Mach Insoles, the ability to seamlessly thread sensors into the fabric of garments has completely revolutionized the wearables industry.

The Study

Now imagine being able to embroider a heart rate monitor into hospital garments. Researchers at Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, Dubendorf (EMPA) have unveiled a fabric optic material that can be woven, knit, or embroidered into fabric and guess what? It’s washable and according to a recent Popular Science article, “even when using hospital-grade detergent.”

Citing the importance of washable clothing in clinical or rehabilitation settings, EMPA researcher Luciano Boesel who worked on the study explained, “The ultimate goal was to develop sensors that can monitor health signs in paraplegic patients – who often run into problems with traditional sensors which can rub against the skin and eventually form sores.” The team of EMPA researchers had to strike a balance between developing a strong enough sensor to read vital signs but at the same time, minimize patient discomfort.

Washable Heartbeat Sensors

“It can give feedback to clinicians that can evaluate the data and improve the treatment plan for paraplegic patients,” Brit Maike Quandt, the first author of the study and researcher at EMPA told Popular Science in a recent interview. According to the published study, two different polymers are melt-spun into a fiber optic thread. With the inside fiber optic polymer capable of transmitting light over long distances and the melt-spinning process yielding over 1300 feet of fiber per minute, you end up with an ample supply of materials.

The Mel-Spinning Process

“The more popular form of creating fiber optic threads is fiber-drawing – a process that can only produce around 100-feet per minute,” according to the Journal of the Royal Society Interface. After the melt-spinning generates the thread, researchers are then able to transform the material into sensors and embroider it into fabric. Designed specifically for hospital garments, once there’s bending of the embroidered fabric, the light from the LED escaped the fiber and travels into the skin. “The reflection of that light off a person’s pulse is registered by a detector embroidered with the same type of threads.”

Whether the technology is embroidered in hospital garments, a wool hat, or athletic wear, the sensors are extremely power emitting a highly accurate signal. As for the comfort level – the woven-in prototype is undetectable – making the monitoring process 100% seamless for the clinician and pain-free for the wearer. After countless friction tests, it was determined that the “textile sensor produces less friction than conventional bed sheets.”

The EMPA researchers have bigger plans for their sensors which they hope will someday track oxygen levels or even gauge the pressure in car tires.