MIT develops machine-washable sensors that embed in clothing for constant vital sign monitoring

MIT has developed a new type of lightweight sensor that can be integrated into flexible fabrics, including the kinds of polyesters often used in athletic wear, to provide constant monitoring of vital signs including body temperature, heart rate and respiratory rate. These sensors are machine-washable and can be integrated into clothing that appears totally normal on the outside, and they can also be removed and re-used in different garments.

The research, which led to the design of a prototype that communicates with a smartphone and that could lead to eventual mass production with partners in China, has potential applications across the health industry, in athletics and even in space for astronaut vital sign monitoring. MIT’s research was funded in part by NASA and the MIT Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative, but its potential here on Earth has much more widespread benefit potential, particularly in the era of COVID-19 and the healthcare landscape that will result even once it’s more under control.

In particular, this could be a cost-effective and easy way for patients with chronic conditions that require regular monitoring and check-ins with their physicians to keep on top of reporting that is often manual and difficult to maintain consistently. Rather than relying on updates either in-person, or even via telemedicine, these individuals could provide a steady stream of biometric data to the healthcare professionals monitoring their treatment. It could automate the process to an extent that makes it easier for both individual and their caregivers to keep on top of the situation in real-time.

Remote healthcare solutions are already seeing massive spikes in demand due to COVID-19, as patients and healthcare professionals seek ways to continue to manage healthcare needs while lessening COVID-19 exposure risk, especially among the most vulnerable, which includes individuals with chronic or pre-existing conditions.

Some companies are already experimenting with variations of this approach, including U.S. primary care startup Forward, which is distributing biometric sensors to its patients for at-home monitoring. Connected sensor company Kinsa is also showing the value of aggregated anonymized biometric data with a map that employs its sensor data to track a potential leading indicator of COVID-19 spread: the prevalence of fever in a community.

Wearable sensors embedded in clothing have been tried before, and even productized, but MIT’s version looks like the most wearable and least disruptive to the wearer in terms of convenience and comfort yet. In future, always-on health data monitoring could inform the development of more and better pandemic modeling, too, so this is definitely an innovation space to watch.