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Last Updated: Saturday, 17 March 2007, 07:54 GMT
Smart fabrics to take the pulse
By Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News website

US soldiers
The US military is interested in the technology
US special forces could soon be wearing smart fabrics that monitor how they cope during combat situations.

The fabric gathers information on heart beat, skin temperature, posture, activity and breathing rate when against the skin.

The textiles were developed by New Zealand firm Zephyr and have been shown off at the hi-tech trade fair, Cebit.

The fabric could also be used by athletes to hone their performance by measuring how they react in training.

Data sheet

At Cebit, Zephyr took the wraps off two of its patented products - a bio-harness and a shoe pod.

The bio-harness (a length of fabric worn around the chest) and the shoe pod (a smart insole) are both made of a patented textile that has the sensors woven into it. Once paired with electronics to store and broadcast data, this fabric can record physiological information.

Zephyr bioharness
The fabric gathers information on heart rate and skin temperature

Steven Small, director of business development for Zephyr, said the company expected the products to find a role in the health, defence and medical markets.

Already, he said, Zephyr had signed a deal with the US Department of Defense to provide some of its special forces with the bioharness.

Mr Small said the device would enable officers to see what physiological state their men were in.

He said the work that Zephyr had done on the fabric had taken it out of the laboratory and enabled it to be put to much more practical use.

"All these tools exist today but only in laboratories, which would mean they hook you up to wires to measure you," he said. "With our tools, the doctor gives them to you and you go away and use them for a week."

The bioharness could also be used on subjects undergoing drug tests to see how their body reacts to a new medicine.

The devices on show at Cebit can either record a week's worth of data or transmit data as it is gathered to a nearby laptop.

Step forward

The smart insole, or shoe pod, could find a role as a training aid for runners, said Mr Small.

Marathon runners
The fabrics could help athletes train

The shoe pod can measure the size of a person's step to see where they place the most pressure and can also look at such parameters as where they push off from and how fast their foot hits the ground.

"It could be a great coaching tool for sprinters," he said.

The smart insole might also prove useful for those recovering from serious operations to replace a knee or hip, as it could measure how a person's gait changes before and after the procedure.

Either of the devices could also prove popular with amateur athletes keen to measure how they perform on their regular run.

"The next step is to use Java [a computer language] to connect it to a cellphone," said Mr Small. "Then you have an automatic connection to the internet so by the time you are home you can log on and see how you did."

Mr Small said the bioharness was being used by some of the keen runners among Zephyr staff.

"It's created quite a competition because they can go to the website and measure their progress against everyone else," he said.

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