UMN wearable tech lab aims to combine clothing and technology

Lab researchers are working on leggings with sensors and compression-based clothing.

by Katrina Pross

Leggings with sensors and thermal clothing are among the ongoing projects at the University of Minnesota’s Wearable Technology Lab, which seeks to combine clothing with technology.

While some clothing labs prioritize technology over comfort, the University’s lab strives to make the clothing wearable. Some of the clothes seem futuristic, but researchers say the clothing will eventually be everyday wear and could help people with injuries or disorders, like autism.

While other labs working on similar projects are staffed by computer scientists and engineers, the University’s lab — composed of 10 graduate students and five undergraduate students — relies on apparel designers to maintain a human focus, said Co-Director Lucy Dunne.

The Wearable Technology Lab is working on a number of projects, including a pair of leggings that use sensors to determine if an athlete’s knee is out of alignment during a workout. The leggings vibrate if the wearer is not using correct leg motion or is at risk for injury. The leggings, which researchers have been working on since the summer of 2016, may also collect data the wearer can use for instant and long-term performance feedback.

The leggings are still in development, and the final product may function differently, but the project is moving forward again this week after a break while researchers worked on other projects, said Sophia Utset-Ward, a graduate researcher in the lab.

“Working on the human body is difficult because humans come in different shapes and sizes,” said Utset-Ward.

Human bodies are unpredictable, and it can be difficult to adapt technology to wearable, comfortable clothing, Dunne said. Plus, human bodies sweat and often change when exposed to different environments, she said.

“A lot of technology are designed for a rigid environment and are stiff, but humans are not rigid,” Dunne said.

The Wearable Technology Lab is working on several other projects, including compression-based clothing, which can be beneficial for people going through physical rehabilitation or help patients with autism feel more relaxed.

The team is also working on thermal-based clothing that could function as a wearable heating pad, said Lab Manager Heidi Woelfle. With thermal technology, the clothing heats the individual human body but not the environment itself, possibly leading to energy savings, she said.

The Wearable Technology Lab is also studying persuasive clothing or a “smart wardrobe,” Woelfle said. This clothing could encourage the user to behave or feel in a different way, for example, relaxing wearers or persuading them to move more, she said.

The lab has also worked with NASA, and Co-Director Brad Holschuh has created skin-tight spacesuits for astronauts in zero gravity.

“This is the future of what everyday people will wear,” Dunne said.