Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a smart textile that stands out in the rush of new smart fabric solutions. The engineering team created a vest, socks, gloves, and a sleeve for a robot arm out of coaxial piezo-resistive fibers. The garments can detect movements like walking or sitting as well as stationary poses. Some of the garments also detect texture when they make contact with another surface.

When overlapped, the fibers create a sensing unit. The team used a digital knitting machine to integrate the threads with fabric which was then sewn into garments. The scalable, low-cost process resulted in stretchy, soft clothing that comfortably conforms to the body. 

The team used prototypes to collect an extensive data set of tactile human-environmental interactions. Using machine learning, the team built a self-correcting, self-supervising algorithm that recognizes and adjusts malfunctioning sensors. That’s exciting because a barrier to mass-production so far has been the cost associated with ensuring a smart garment’s many miniature sensors retain optimal function.

The MIT engineers envision coaches, personal trainers, and physical therapists using the garments to analyze physical activity and provide information about how the wearer can improve their technique. The clothes could also have diagnostic use in orthopedic conditions and for remote patient monitoring. In residential care and aging-in-place settings, the clothes could detect a fall or an unconscious resident. 

Other potential applications for the MIT smart fabric include a wearable computer interface and a broad surface “skin” that would provide human-like tactile sensing capabilities for robots. The team published their findings in a paper in Nature: Electronics