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Material gain

Posted on 05/09/2017

Wearable technology isn't just for the gym.

Flexibility is key to finding multiple applications for wearable tech.

We look at some of the rising stars of innovation who, with KTN’s support, exhibited at this year’s IdTechEx show in Berlin, which showcases the latest in emerging technologies.

Infi-Tex is an innovative sensor company that connects people to the Internet through textiles, which can be worn, used on the floor, or even be made into chair coverings. Managing Director Myra Waiman talks about what sets her products apart.

How do your sensors work?

The main product that we’re working on at the moment is a piece of technology that can be worn as a small patch in clothes or in the soles of shoes. We are largely focused on the soles of shoes and patches on jackets for  sports and wellness; giving you feedback on how your body is functioning. We’re also investigating the IoT space, especially in looking after the elderly with dignity: the same device can be used as mats on the floor, for example, so that you can tell when someone has fallen (in the bathroom or bedroom) without the use of a camera.

So you make the technology, not the clothes or shoes themselves?

That’s right. Our business model is based on developing the technology for each individual client, but we don’t want to be a jacket manufacturer or a shoe manufacturer. We’re saying to manufacturers ‘this is what we’ve got and this is what it can do: it’s up to you how you use it.’

"We all wear clothes, and we all wear shoes: how can we combine them with diagnostics to do useful things?"

What’s different about your sensors?

Of all the IoT devices out there, ours is wire-free, it’s Bluetooth-enabled, it’s fully washable and dry-cleanable, it’s flexible, and technically, it’s anisotropic, meaning that it can’t be turned on unintentionally. It measures changes of pressure and changes in centre of mass. So if you put it in a shoe, it can measure your gait by detecting changes in pressure on each side of your foot. You can use it for orthotics, therefore, or for rehabilitation. Or it can work like Hawkeye in sports, except in real time and with no cameras: it’s very good at detecting something hitting an object (a cricket ball hitting a bat, say, or a tennis ball touching the line on a tennis court). We’ve recently been asked by a sports association, for example, to produce track walls for schools to promote a particular sport.

And you’ve responded to an Innovate UK design call?

Yes – we’re using it to design a chair for older people which is design-friendly and technically smart: it’s an attractive, comfortable chair that can detect if someone is sitting too still in it.

By using our technology, you can see the pressure points when an elderly person sits down. Staying too still can lead to pressure ulcers, and it can also be an early sign of depression. Using our devices has a diagnostic element, therefore, but it also empowers older people by giving them feedback on how they’re sitting, and if they’ve been in one position for too long.

So where are you in development?

We’ve responded to another Innovate UK call in Materials and Manufacturing. It’s a big jump from prototype to manufacturing, but that’s exactly where we are. We’re trying to manufacture in the UK, but it can be expensive to do so.

And what help has KTN given you?

KTN has shared some very useful knowledge with us. They’ve given us space on their pods at exhibitions, which has been extremely useful, helping us to increase our profile – you soon begin to know all the players. We’ve also found that academics take you more seriously if you work with Innovate UK and KTN people than if you tried to do it alone. We now work with the Royal College of Art, London College of Fashion, Imperial College, and Manchester and Cambridge Universities.

What came out of the Berlin event, in particular?

In Berlin, the visitors who were coming to the stand were at a very high level. We’d exhibited at the wearable technology show at ExCel, but this was a very different category of people. The connections that we made in Berlin were much more valuable: we met people from Flextronics, a company that helps to build Internet-connected devices. We also made some important contacts with the teams at Manchester and Cambridge Universities who are working on graphene.

So graphene could be useful to you?

Our sensors are a sandwich: the two outer layers are resistive, while the centre layer is conductive. We’re looking at incorporating graphene as the resistant outer layer. It’s very thin and very strong. Graphene can also be used as very sensitive sensors.

Wearable technology seems to be moving very fast at the moment.

In terms of timing, we feel that we’re in the right place at the right time. Some of the technology that we use has been around since the early 2000s. In the early 2000s, we were making switches with wires in jackets: now with Bluetooth, they’re wireless, which makes them more durable. Wires mean that you can’t wash them, or that they crack after a while.

And the market for sensors has also developed?

Yes – that’s what has led this. It’s a question of focus – in terms of the sector, we’ve seen a move towards the less fanciful things. A lot of wearable tech is being sold in the gym market – it’s hip, you wear it for about six months and then it sits in your drawer. But we want our devices to have a proper functionality. We’re looking for situations where there is a reason for having them, a need, that will drive the market.

If you really need things – for example, for your health, that’s going to drive it. Sometimes, though, things can start as niche applications, before finding a broader use. Elite sportspeople have sensors in their shoes, for example – they’re too valuable to risk injury. But we all wear clothes, and none of us want to be injured.

The same gait analysis can be used to reduce the risk of elderly people fracturing their hips. We are also developing soles that can diagnose neuropathy and diabetic foot ulcers by measuring change of pressure in the soles of shoes. We all wear clothes, and we all wear shoes: how can we combine them with diagnostics to do useful things?

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