Paolo Rossi Castelli 18 November 2021 5 min read

A 'liquid' vest to measure breath

Researchers at MIT in Boston, USA and Uppsala University, Sweden, have created a high-tech fabric that can detect the slightest vibration. It will be useful for athletes and opera singers, as well as stroke patients in rehabilitation.

Singers, dancers, professional and amateur sportspeople, patients who need respiratory rehabilitation and those who practise meditation are just some of the people potentially interested in the new textile fibre developed by bioengineers at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, together with colleagues at Sweden's Uppsala University.

The prototype, called OmniFibers, was presented at the latest virtual conference of the Association for Computing Machinery's User Interface Software and Technology, and details of the research were then published in the ACM Digital Library.

The basic idea is to create a kind of highly sensitive ‘robotic' fibre that can become part of normal fabric so that, once it comes into contact with the body, it can detect all its vibrations and changes, and is also able to simulate individual groups of muscles to improve breathing.

A series of layers
OmniFibers has been developed to be inexpensive, easy to use in industrial textile weaving machines and hypoallergenic and is made up of several layers. Inside are microscopic quantities of a fluid (water or air), in a channel made of elastomers (special, extremely elastic materials). A second layer contains a series of sensors. One outer layer is a kind of stretch mesh made of a material that gives the fabric the elasticity it needs and the outermost part is another, more rigid polymer in the form of a filament, which stabilises the whole fabric and stops it stretching too much.

The heart of the system, however, is the fluid inner part, which detects every vibration and controls the geometry of the fibres, modulating the amount of water or air present in the channels as a result and offering extremely precise muscle control.

High-tech vests
Tests were initially carried out on professional opera singers, for whom breathing is vital. The singers were asked to wear vest-like garments which, thanks to OmniFibers, recorded data on how the garment itself changed shape. This was then transferred to an electronic control system. Researchers did not only measure the movements of the singer's breath in extreme detail but reproduced them, using the special vest. This was worn by a student and it recreated the movement of the teacher’s breath in a tangible way, thanks to the garment’s robotic core (which was activated like an artificial muscle).

The system could be useful for measuring not only breathing, but other types of muscle movements too. “For example, Olympic athletes could develop their skills by wearing a garment that mimics the movements of a top athlete," explains Ozgun Kilic Afsar, an affiliate researcher at MIT.

In the future, OmniFibers could also be used to help people recover from surgery or a serious respiratory disease like Covid 19, or to treat sleep apnea. Researchers also believe that a fabric like OmniFibers could help those trying to refine high-precision manual work, learn how to move the affected muscles properly, or recover muscle function after a stroke or injury.

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Paolo Rossi Castelli

Journalist since 1983, Paolo has been dealing with scientific divulgation for years, especially in the fields of medicine and biology. He is the creator of Sportello Cancro, the site created by corriere.it on oncology in collaboration with the Umberto Veronesi Foundation. He collaborated with the pages of the Science of Corriere della Sera for several years. He is the founder and director of PRC-Comunicare la scienza.