'Electronic clothing' keeps tabs on body's health

Textile makers are competing in the development of high-functioning fabrics, such as clothing capable of measuring wearers' heart rates or checking on the body movements of a wearer.

Compared to other kinds of wearable devices having similar functions, such as a wristwatch, high functional fabrics are characterized by the idea that wearers tend not to feel they are wearing such devices. Research aimed at putting such fabrics into practical use, including one aimed at preventing heatstroke, has also started.

Toray Industries Inc. and NTT Corp. jointly developed a high-functioning material called "hitoe." It was created by coating a fabric made of a thin fiber material, about one-hundredth the width of a human hair, with electricity-conducting resin, thus enabling the fabric to detect weak electrical signals generated from the heart.

In August, Toray tested the fabric at Naha Airport together with NTT Communications and Japan Airlines. In the test, cargo handlers and others wore a working suit made of the hitoe material to measure and obtain their heart rates and other data.

The data was sent to a dedicated system via the smartphones of those workers. If the system determined there was a risk of heatstroke for a particular worker, a warning message was sent to the smartphone or other device of that worker or a site manager.

"We'd like to put the hitoe material into practical use as it does not hinder movement," a spokesperson at Toray said.

In August, Toyobo Co. also announced development of a high-functional material that it called "Cocomi," which is capable of measuring a wearer's heart rate and other data after being attached to the inside of clothing. The product is a 0.3-millimeter-thin filmlike material that can conduct electricity.

Created by giving elastic properties to an electronic component, the material is capable of obtaining highly accurate data while being comfortable to wear, according to the company. With the prospect of attaching the material to sportswear and other products, the company targets sales of ¥200 million (S$14.3 million) in fiscal 2017.

Teijin Ltd. and Kansai University have been jointly conducting research on a fabric woven by a special fiber that generates electricity when motion is detected. The material, called a piezoelectric fabric, is capable of detecting such motions as bending and twisting.

By processing the fabric into clothing, gloves and other products, it can be applied to technologies to convey human motions to robots and other devices, according to the company.

"The fabric could be used for telesurgery [surgery performed some distance from the patient]," a company spokesperson said.

However, there are problems in spreading the use of such high-functioning materials, such as the need to improve the fabrics' data analysis techniques. In addition, it is unclear how much the need for such materials will increase, so it may take some time before the materials are widely used.