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SOFT SENSORS MIGHT MAKE WEARABLES ACTUALLY WEARABLE

  • Author:chinatopwin
  • Source:chinatopwin
  • Release on :2017-07-14

PICTURE A RECTANGLE of fabric cut from a standard grey t-shirt. It’s stretchier than most tees, 
because it’s made from a mix of nylon and spandex, not cotton. And it stands out in another way, 
too: If you flip back a corner of the cloth, one side has an unexpected metallic sheen.
This textile isn’t the creation of a sci-fi costume director. It’s called shieldex, and it was exactly 
what textile engineer Asli Atalay and her team at Harvard needed to develop a soft, stretchable, 
motion-measuring sensor. The metallic shine comes from silver coating the flexible fibers, so the 
fabric can stretch and conduct electrons at the same time. Rather than slapping silicon chips into 
bracelets, these electronics could give wearables more of the stretchability and comfort of the 
best sweatpants.
While the roboticist’s arsenal of metal components and silicon chips accomplishes a lot, softer 
robotic wearables could be friendlier for injuries, or older users, driving down the risks to humans 
while still providing help with, say, opening a jar. Think gloves that boost grip, or sleeves that act 
as assistive exoskeletons. “You put on a t-shirt, a sweater, a pair of socks—you could have these 
types of sensors embedded in them,” says bioengineer Conor Walsh, a co-author of the paper.

To make the sensors, Atalay first sandwiches two layers of souped-up fabric around a film of soft,
 electrically insulating silicone. Then, a trusty laser cutter slices the sandwich into whatever shape 
she wants. She runs a hot iron over an adhesive to attach the electrical leads—like attaching an 
iron-on patch to your jean jacket, except she’s sticking a tiny wire to each layer of silver spandex.
Technically, what she's building is a parallel plate capacitor—each side of the metal-plated fabric 
is an electrode, holding equal but opposite charges. As the fabric stretches, the insulating silicone 
between the electrodes thins out and the electrodes get bigger and closer together, changing the 
sensor's capacitance (that’s the the charge on each conducting plate divided by the voltage 
difference between them). That capacitance change is used to measure how far the fabric 
stretches. And voila: a batch of stretchy, flexible motion sensors.
When Atalay and her collaborators attached these sensors to the fingers of a glove, they 
registered capacitance changes between different hand positions. Walsh imagines that a sensor 
integrated into a t-shirt would measure heart rate. Though it's not something you should expect to 
see on shelves soon: “We’re not quite at the put-it-in-the-machine and wash it for 20 cycles stage 
yet,” Walsh says.
Full-on roboclothes will also need other infrastructure to support these stretch-tracking sensors. A 
gripper would need actuators to provide oomph (Walsh’s lab has some in the works), and then 
chips for “wireless communication, data storage, and power, so that your glove is truly a fully 
integrated wearable system,” says Sheng Xu, a soft electronics researcher at UC San Diego. Xu 
has worked on stretchable lithium ion batteries, and other groups continue to make new types of 
optical fibers, Bluetooth antennas, and processing chips that are smaller and more flexible.
Other groups have made stabs at stretchy sensors before: They've tried carbon nanotubes, 
graphene, and liquid metals as the conducting electrodes in similar devices. But Walsh is excited 
that their process is capable of forming many sensors at once, rather than building just one 
sensor at a time.
Mass production is exciting, because stretchable electronics are geared to alter other 
human-machine interfaces, too. In Xu’s view, “the virtual world is also basically electronics,” so 
more sensors like these could crop up in VR gear. And inflatable robots, or the inflatable space 
dwellings that NASA is testing, would benefit from neatly integrated sensors in their fabric 
structures. Now that's metal.