From something as simple as a door sensor at a store to the new age of ‘smart’ sensors in a rapidly emerging wearables market, the application of sensors has already permeated many parts of our everyday lives.
But the future of dynamic sensor applications goes beyond just measuring your heart rate through the new Apple Watch; it is about how readily available sensor technology can be seamlessly intertwined with our daily activities in order to give us a continuous insight into our own health, our engagement with our environment, our body language, and how we can improve the objects around us. Stretch Sense aims to provide for these insights.
This is not just about wearables, companies within the medicine, military and, more notably, sport industries have all been increasing the connectivity of their respective products and workflows to the Internet of Things (IoT) and have used this connectivity and awareness to create powerful tools that enable better understanding, better analyses and ultimately better decisions to be made. Sensors fuel this process.
But not every type of sensor is fit to measure the range of lifestyles that we lead or how our environment affects us. Why? Because people are a special case – we are dynamic beings that have soft bodies, which react differently when we interact with the different situations and products around us.
A step up with soft sensors
Unlike other widely used sensors that focus on the movement and characteristics of hard objects, soft sensors have been developed with the body, and other ‘soft’ objects, in mind. Whether they are a few millimeters in diameter or the size of a sheet of paper, these sensors provide highly accurate and repeatable data about any change in shape of these soft structures. These style of sensors, commonly viewed as mostly useful for the sports industry, have an incredibly wide range of applications, as they can be placed anywhere on the human body or in our clothes, or can be glued, sewn, or even bolted on to any soft structure we want to monitor. And this is where the key behind soft sensing technology lies: Its ability to relay a deep level of real-time data uninhibited by the design of the product that it is applied to. Because they can be specifically customized to suit a large spectrum of situations and structures, products that use soft and stretchy sensors can be designed to fit the way our bodies work, and not the other way around.
The opportunities are limitless, and by thinking outside the box stretch sensors have massive potential to disrupt much more than just the realm of consumer wearables.
The most obvious application for soft sensors is in the sports sphere. The connected athlete already has a suite of wearable tech tools at their disposal, like armbands and wristbands that measure distance, time and routes; however, many of these products are focused purely on monitoring biometric data.
By contrast, barely-there soft sensors, which can be simply sewn onto an athlete’s clothes, can add a level of biomechanic data that gives both athletes and coaches a better understanding of body motion, muscle contraction, breathing rates, movement techniques, posture, and risk of injury for each individual. The flexibility of the sensors means that they can be applied to shoes, shirts, shorts, socks, undergarments and even swimwear, all without restricting any part of the athlete’s natural behavior and performance.
To complement this, wireless technology has meant that these sensors can be connected directly to a tablet or smartphone to relay the data straight away. This means that an athlete can break down and analyze every part of their performance without leaving the sporting venue.
Hospitals and specialist clinics have already benefited greatly from the use of sensors to measure a range of health metrics like heart rate, blood pressure, glucose levels, and much more. However, the healthcare industry still lacks a wide integration of available technologies that could produce better results. New sensors offer the possibility of shifting low level care into the home, allowing accurate self-assessment, and ongoing monitoring of patients during home recovery time periods.
For patients who require ongoing physiotherapy, for example, soft sensors allow for the individual monitoring of exercise movements, accuracy of technique, and recovery progress. Combined with an App, a specialist can then view the data from the sensors in real time without needing to see the patient directly, passing on a saving of both time and money for the patient and the care provider. Unlike other sensors used in the health industry to take ‘snapshots’ of our body, soft sensors can be an invaluable way to enable continuous monitoring of patients away from the hospital.
Perhaps the most surprising of these industries in this list, the automobile sector already uses more than 100 sensors (depending on the model) to measure brakes, tire pressure, temperature, and even sensors to tell you if you’re too close to the car behind you. They are mostly focused on the wellbeing of the car, but the most precious are the people inside. Embedded within a car seat, soft sensors can be used to analyze how people are sitting, showing clearly their weight distribution and posture of the driver or passengers.
With this level of data, car manufacturers and designers can look to improve the comfort and safety of the car. The seat can automatically adjust to the personal preference of the person sitting in it and make sure they stay comfortable even on long journeys. Safety features, such as an airbag, can be dynamically geared towards the individual sitting in the seat — whether it’s an adult or a child — which can enable the car to deploy the airbag with adequate pressure and height if an accident were to occur.
4) Virtual reality/Augmented reality
Although large companies like Google have sparked a resurgence in the interest behind virtual reality, it is interesting to see the limiting factors that hold back VR from being a truly immersive experience — namely, the lack of input methods for interacting with the digital universe. Keyboards and touchscreens simply do not work. Unfortunately for the industry, these are still the critical elements that, apart from the visual aspect, largely connect the user to the experience.
Precisely tracking how a person moves in a simple, untethered way not only plugs a major gap in the VR/AR experience, it paves the way for the whole body to become an input device. Soft sensors can make games responsive through the natural movements of a player. Beyond entertainment, the sensors can also be used in conjunction with motion capture technologies to measure a person’s neurological reactions in nearly real-life situations. By having these sensors working to measure both the output and input from the individual, developers can create situations that seem truly real, and researchers can gather valuable psychological information.
A simple solution
The above examples are just the tip of the iceberg for the wide application of soft sensors within particular industries.
The main issue we currently face with sensor technology is that the focus has been on repurposing technology created for rigid and precise machines and putting them on soft bodies. People, however, are soft and precise – and the act of translating our natural behavior into a form that these sensors recognize only increases our cognitive load rather than makes our lives better.
But with soft sensing, we can have technology working for us in the background at all times, without us having to think about it. Technology should enhance our life, not distract us from it. Thus, the future for any industry wanting to apply these dynamic sensors should be to simplify the complexity of the technology and create products that are always working for us, whether we are actively using them or not.