Creativity & Culture

In the future, the things we wear will take care of us

At the intersection of clothing and technology

Creativity & Culture

In the future, the things we wear will take care of us

For most people, monitoring wellness or undergoing tests to diagnose a medical condition means visiting a clinic or hospital. That can present challenges for individuals with language or mobility concerns, and, as has been the case during the COVID-19 pandemic, concerns regarding in-person visits for non-virus related medical care have led many to avoid seeking advice or treatment altogether.

Our mental and physical health might also benefit from the regulation of activities, including simple human or automated reminders to stand up and stretch, rest when we are overworked or take medications. But there are limits to what we can do with prevailing technologies and methods.

From day-to-day monitoring of our health and ensuring that prompt attention is dispatched in the event of a medical emergency to promoting better human connectedness and wellness through modern design and manufacturing processes, there are many opportunities to apply more creativity and innovation to how we take care of ourselves.

Ryerson is at the forefront of supporting such efforts and is contributing to work that ultimately will improve the lives of people everywhere.

Using smart textiles to promote health and wellness

“The apparel oft proclaims the man,” says Polonius, advisor to the newly crowned King of Denmark, to his son Laertes in Act 1, Scene 3, of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

But what if our apparel could proclaim more than just our station in life, such as the state of our health and safety or even performance at critical tasks?

Those are the kinds of questions that Toronto-based Myant Inc. has spent the last decade exploring. Now, in collaboration with Ryerson’s FCAD, the Faculty of Communication and Design, they are pushing the boundaries of design, fashion and engineering in the emerging field of textile computing: the integration of technology into the very fibres of clothing and other fabrics.

smart fabrics
Myant Inc. has “smart” apparel that can monitor everything from ECG to sleep quality

“Myant is at the forefront of the next wave of industrial and commercial innovation in Canada,” says FCAD Dean Charles Falzon. “Our students and faculty live at the intersection of design, technology and user experience, and we are excited to work with Myant to unlock new possibilities for the future of human-machine interactions.”

Indeed, the vision for textile computing is at once bold and far-reaching. The clothes we wear, bedding we sleep on and covered furnishings we use at home and work, for example, can be embedded with nano-scale sensors and actuators that are connected to an AI-enabled digital platform. That puts us on the cusp of a new era in remote health monitoring and management, along with improved productivity, performance and workforce wellness and safety.

a woman with a construction hat at a textile production line
FCAD’s partnership with Myant Inc. reimagines the future of design and technology through textile-based solutions

To demonstrate what’s possible, Myant has already launched an apparel line that includes everyday essentials such as underwear, bras and undershirts, as well as baby onesies and polo shirts. Each serves as a digitally connected epilayer on top of a person’s skin to monitor essential health information.

“We all wear clothes or sleep on sheets,” notes Todd Carmichael, FCAD’s executive director of strategic planning and advancement. “By embedding technology in use-cases that are already pervasive, we can unleash a world of possibilities.”

Number of patents secured by Myant Inc.

That chair we sit on to work? It will sense our physical and psychological state and suggest we take a 10-minute break. Sensors knitted into the fabric used in safety shoes will provide continuous gait analysis to help predict and ultimately prevent occupational slips, trips and falls.

The list goes on. So, too, will the need for more research and multi-disciplinary collaboration. What, for instance, are the useful lifetimes of smart textiles, and how should they be recycled or repurposed? It’s questions like these that will drive future innovations and refinement of the technology.

With textile computing, we’re seeing not just the emergence of a new industry that has the potential to make a profound difference in the lives of individuals, but also the start of a unique, made-in-Canada innovation network in which the Myant Textile Computing Lab at FCAD plays a central role.

We all wear clothes or sleep on sheets. By embedding technology in use-cases that are already pervasive, we can unleash a world of possibilities.
Todd Carmichael, Executive Director of strategic planning and advancement at Ryerson’s Faculty of Communication and Design (FCAD)

Making remote, real-time heart health monitoring a reality

Heart disease is a leading cause of death. For those with heart ailments, there are a few options for monitoring outside of healthcare facilities, but all are uncomfortable to wear and there is usually a delay before the information they collect is reviewed by medical professionals. Some of these devices also lack the ability to detect certain conditions. Plus, they are expensive.

Those and other shortcomings are partly what prompted Frank Nguyen and André Bertram to start HelpWear while they were still high school students in 2015.

There was also a personal incentive. Nguyen’s mother had serious heart problems. Nguyen was concerned that if an emergency occurred when he was absent, she would not be able to get proper medical care in time. So, he and Bertram set out together to develop an alternative.

smiling grandparents holding a baby
HeartWatch, a lightweight armband that allows users to engage in daily life without the physical restrictions associated with conventional ambulatory monitors

The result of their joint efforts is HeartWatch, a lightweight armband that allows users to engage in daily life without the physical restrictions associated with conventional ambulatory monitors. It’s an easy-to-use solution that combines the accuracy of a hospital-grade ECG heart monitor with the health data technology and smartphone integration of consumer-level wearable devices.

“HeartWatch is different from others on the market in that it monitors heart activity 24/7, can detect cardiac events, notifies emergency medical services of a patient’s GPS location and event data to emergency physicians in real time, so they can treat patients more effectively,” explains Bertram, who is now the company’s CEO alongside Nguyen as the chief technical officer.

An important first step in developing their device was attending Ryerson’s DMZ Basecamp, which helps aspiring young entrepreneurs bring their innovative ideas to life. It provided Bertram and Nguyen with access to “an ecosystem of industry experts, tech whizzes and advisors” as a starting point to building on their initial concepts.

The constant monitoring period of the HeartWatch differentiates from other products on the market

HelpWear was also one of the first residents in the university’s Biomedical Zone, a leading incubator for medical startups in partnership with St. Michael’s Hospital. The zone is one of 10 on-campus incubators in which entrepreneurs work to develop real-world ventures, projects and causes.

“Allowing us to design our technology around not only what a patient needs, but also from a clinical perspective with direct reference to what physicians and the medical system require, was a huge benefit,” Bertram says of their zone learning experience.

Looking ahead, he and Nguyen aim to position HeartWatch as “the doctor around a patient’s arm,” providing ICU-quality monitoring and care from anywhere to any location. More broadly, their business aims to be a key piece of the technology layer required to improve telemedicine.

That’s an ambitious goal. But if HelpWear succeeds, it could mean more than extending health monitoring to remote and under-served communities in Canada. It could also make affordable and potentially life-saving health care available to patients around the world.

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