From tracking your daily target of 10,000 steps to using a smart watch to check our bank account, many of us already take advantage of wearable technology.
But electronics that can be worn on the body are about more than personal convenience. They also can help solve large-scale societal problems.
Take the ageing population, “poised to become one of the most significant social transformations of the twenty-first century”, according to the United Nations. The number of people aged 60 years or over is expected to more than double by 2050.
One potential complication regards mobility. As we age, it gets more difficult to move easily – something that can undermine quality of life and pose a challenge in offices, public spaces and homes.
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A new kind of wearable technology may help. A lightweight, comfortable ‘super suit’ designed by Seismic – a wearable robotics spin-off from the non-profit research centre SRI International – works with the user’s muscles to help boost their power.
The suit’s ‘electric muscles', powered by tiny motors, contract in a way that mimics human muscle. These electric muscles are integrated into the clothing around the joints of the body and attached via grips in the clothing. These grips function like tendons in the human body.
A computer and sensors tracking body movements are also integrated into the suit; software tells the muscles in the clothing when to activate. The hard technology components such as motors, batteries and control boards are incorporated into hexagonal low-profile pods, designed for maximum comfort.
Freedom to move
"Right now the only kinds of products that can help people are walkers and canes,” says Rich Mahoney, founder and CEO of Seismic. (Wheelchairs are another aid, but the suit is aimed more at those whose mobility is reduced only slightly). “The other option is to stay home or to limit your activity. And most people choose that because they don't really want to associate themselves with those other kinds of products."
To keep the clothing looking sleek and its function discreet, Seismic worked with designer Yves Béhar. “The goal is to make a product that you actually want to wear, not one that you have to wear,” says Béhar. “Comfort is extremely important, as well as aesthetics.”
See more versions of the 'super suit' below:
Seismic aims to launch this suit – the first item in their range of powered clothing – at the end of the year in markets including the US, Japan and the UK. The ‘super suit’ features alongside more than 100 other products in The Future Starts Here, an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum in London.
Once you reach 60, the rate of age-related muscle accelerates dramatically
Decreasing muscle strength affects everyone as we get older. Once you hit 60, age-related muscle loss accelerates – going from 0.5% per year to 2% at age 70 and 4% at 80, for example.
Wearable apparel has wider potential beyond the ‘senior market’, too. Research is underway to develop products to assist those who have suffered strokes and children with muscular dystrophy. There also are occupational safety and industrial applications – for example for people working in warehouses or construction sites.
“As a designer, my focus is in ensuring that this technology is used in a way that makes sense for us as humans – that it improves our daily lives,” says Béhar.
He believes that wearable technology is in its infancy. After all, a decade ago, for example, a battery-less wearable that fits on your thumbnail to detect UV exposure would have seemed all but impossible. “Ten years from now, technology will only be more invisible,” he says.
It’s hard to know just which direction wearable technology will take in the decades to come. But as such advances are applied to an ever-widening range of uses and industries – and to help solve global problems – what’s certain is that the symbiotic relationship between technology and humans has the potential to benefit us all.
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