U of M investigating wearable technologies

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UMNCDBy Yael Grauer

Located within the University of Minnesota’s College of Design, the Wearable Product Design Center is an umbrella organization encompassing four research labs: the Wearable Technology Lab, the Human Dimensioning Lab, the Experiential Lab and the Wearable Innovation Studio.

The Wearable Technology Lab, directed by Dr. Lucy Dunne, is one year into an ambitious three year project to address the challenges and limitations of traditional ambulatory monitoring.  The research objective is to prove the concept of contextualizing clinical data parameters like blood pressure or joint movements with concurrent activity data from garment integrated body sensors, an area more broadly known as e-textiles. Body positions are used to detect activities of the wearer, which in turn provide information about the context in which the clinical data were captured for the clinician.

“It’s a relatively new but never ending pursuit,” says Dunne, who has been immersed in the field for over a decade.

To this end, Dunne’s lab is working on developing sensor embedded apparel, such as vests, that would recognize types of activity through advanced motion capture techniques. This project, funded by a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation, is in collaboration with Virginia Tech’s E-Textiles Laboratory,  developers of an algorithm that would make sense of subject data.

“NSF research is known for its focus on at next generation concepts that overcome obstacles industry would face,” Dunne notes.
Also coming out of the Wearing Technology Lab is Smart Clothing, Smart Girls: Engineering Via Apparel Design, a project aiming to teach middle school girls STEM content through clothing design-related activities.

“There’s a strong need for engaging younger girls in STEM fields because they’re significantly underrepresented, and clothing design can be a really big draw. It’s something that girls tend to be very interested in, so our job is to show them how much engineering there is and how fun it can be,” Dunne explained.

Pilot workshops were conducted last summer, and more will take place this coming summer with partners at 4-H and Girls Inc. This project is funded by the National Science Foundation and in collaboration with Cornell University.

Additionally, the Wearable Design Center is in the midst of a sustainability project of sorts: the Clothing Management and the Smart Wardrobe project, which seeks to overcome information overload in the decision-making process of garment selection. The lab has discovered that people own quite a lot and use startlingly little, proportionally. “Some of the people we monitor use only 5% of their total [working, everyday] wardrobe regularly and that’s obviously a very small amount,” Dunne said, “and when you compare that with consumption rates, it starts to be a little bit disturbing.”

Dunne believes it is the overwhelming selection of combinations of clothing which leads to decision-making shortcuts, and that forgotten garments and combinations within one’s existing wardrobe could allow people to satisfy the need for novelty within their own closets rather than buying new clothes wastefully. A longer-term goal for the project is to develop an algorithm that will determine what a good and bad outfit is, and therefore offer quality recommendations for garment combinations.

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