Todd Gisby is the CTO of New Zealand-based startup StretchSense, which produces stretchable capacitive sensors for a range of industries.
From something as simple as a door sensor at a store to the new age of “smart” sensors in a rapidly emerging wearables market, the application of sensors has already permeated many parts of our everyday lives.
But the future of dynamic sensor applications goes beyond just measuring your heart rate through the new Apple Watch; it is about how readily available sensor technology can be seamlessly intertwined with our daily activities to give us continuous insight into our own health and the way we interact with the world around us.
This is not just about wearables. Companies within the medicine, military and sport industries have all been increasing the connectivity of their respective products and workflows to the Internet of Things (IoT), and have used this connectivity and awareness to create powerful tools that enable better understanding, better analyses and better decisions.
Sensors fuel this process. But like all tools, it’s important to use the right one for the job. Not every type of sensor is fit to measure the range of lifestyles that we lead, or how our environment affects us. People are dynamic beings with soft bodies that react differently when we interact with the different situations and products around us.
A Step Up With Soft Sensors
Unlike conventional sensors that focus on the movement and characteristics of hard objects, soft sensors have been developed with the body and other “soft” structures in mind. Whether they are a few millimeters in diameter or the size of a sheet of paper, these sensors provide highly accurate and repeatable data about any change in the shape of these soft structures.
Soft and stretchy sensors can be used to measure human movement directly without interfering with that movement. They can be placed on the body, discreetly integrated into our clothes or otherwise glued, sewn or moulded into anything soft. This enables products to be designed to fit the way our bodies and other soft structures work, not the other way around.
The opportunities are limitless. Stretch sensors have massive potential to disrupt much more than just the realm of consumer wearables.
The most obvious application for soft sensors is in the sports sphere. The connected athlete already has a suite of wearable tech tools at their disposal, such as armbands and wristbands that measure distance, time and routes. However, many of these products are focused purely on monitoring biometric data.
By contrast, barely-there soft sensors add a level of bio-mechanical data that gives athletes and coaches a better understanding of body motion, muscle contraction, breathing rates, movement techniques, posture and risk of injury for each individual.
Companies such as Heddoko have already started integrating StretchSense’s fabric stretch sensor into compression clothing to continuously track body movement and guide athletes toward optimal performance and precision. The flexibility of the sensors means that they can be applied to any item of clothing or footwear without restricting any part of the athlete’s natural movement and performance.
Paired with wireless technology, athletes can break down and analyse every part of their performance without leaving the sporting venue.
Hospitals and specialist clinics have already benefited greatly from the use of sensors to measure a range of health metrics, like heart rate, blood pressure, glucose levels and much more. However, the healthcare industry still lacks a wide integration of available technologies that could produce better results.
Wireless and wearable soft sensors enable low-level care to be shifted out of the hospital and into the home, allowing accurate self-assessment and ongoing monitoring of patients during home recovery time periods.
For patients who require ongoing physiotherapy, soft sensors allow for the individual monitoring of exercise movements, improving the accuracy of technique and tracking of the recovery progress. Patients can share their data in real time with their specialist, from home or work, saving everyone the time and opportunity cost involved in making a special trip.
At MIT, researchers have created a “7 finger robot” that enhances the grasping mechanism of the human hand by adding two extra “fingers” adjacent to the thumb and pinky finger. The grasping assistance of the robot has potential to help elderly and disabled patients expand their independence capabilities over greater periods of time. Watch the video of the device:
The automobile sector already uses more than 100 sensors (depending on the model) to measure brakes, tire pressure, temperature and if you’re too close to a car. The majority of these sensors focus on the condition and safety of the car. Soft sensors open new ways to monitor and enhance the safety and comfort of the people within the car.
Embedded within a car seat, soft sensors can be used to analyze how people are sitting, showing clearly the weight distribution and posture of the driver or passengers.
The seat can automatically adjust to the personal preference of the person sitting in it and ensure they stay comfortable throughout their journey. Safety features, such as an airbag, can be dynamically geared toward the individual sitting in the seat — whether it’s an adult or a child — enabling the car to deploy the airbag with appropriate pressure and height in the event of an accident.
Virtual, Augmented Reality
Although large companies like Google have sparked a resurgence in the interest on virtual reality, it is interesting to see the limiting factors that hold back virtual reality from being a truly immersive experience — namely, the lack of input methods for interacting with the digital universe.
Keyboards and touchscreens simply do not work. Unfortunately for the industry, these are still the critical elements that, apart from the visual aspect, largely connect the user to the experience.
Precisely tracking how a person moves in a simple, untethered way not only plugs a major gap in the VR/AR experience, it paves the way for the whole body to become an input device. Soft sensors can make games responsive through the natural movements of a player.
Motion and body language data can be combined with other biometric data to measure a person’s neurological reactions in nearly real-life situations. Now developers can create a truly immersive and truly interactive experience that responds to the people in it.
A Simple Solution
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. For too long we have focused on repurposing sensor technology created for rigid and precise machines and putting them on soft bodies. However, people are soft and precise — and hard sensors simply cannot tell the whole story.
With soft, precise sensing we now have a way of capturing so much more of the non-verbal communication we take for granted when we interact with each other. Mastering this new contextual awareness will take us one giant leap closer toward a world where technology is smarter, less intrusive and more seamlessly embedded in the fabric of our lives. Because, at the end of the day, technology should enhance our life, not distract us from it.