November 28, 2021

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The Sports Fanatics

True sportswear: New ‘OmniFibers’ material ‘trains you’ to breathe like pro athletes

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Sportswear is moving into a new era thanks to smart technology. A new fabric that “records” muscle movement when you breathe could allow for better training and quicker recovery from respiratory disease. The fibers of the fabric, dubbed OmniFibers, record the breathing pattern of top athletes. When it is worn by others, it moves at the rates of the pros, allowing wearers to mimic the professional athlete’s breathing pattern.

In the same manner, the fabric, developed by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, could help train singers. As the garment stretches and compresses using patters from top performers, others can wear the fabric to train via the professional singer’s breathing pattern. More importantly, the fabric could also help patients who are recovering from major surgeries or respiratory diseases such as COVID, say scientists.

OmniFibers are extremely narrow in size and made from affordable materials. They are also perfectly safe to use on human skin, since the outer layer is made from a material resembling polyester, commonly used to make clothes.

“The shortcomings of most existing artificial muscle fibers are that they are either thermally activated, which can cause overheating when used in contact with human skin, or they have low power efficiency, or arduous training processes. These systems often have slow response and recovery times, limiting their immediate usability in applications that require rapid feedback,” says study author Ozgun Afsar, a doctoral student at MIT, in a statement.

Resembling a strand of yarn, the fiber has five layers and contains a fluid channel in the center. This channel acts as an “artificial muscle,” with sensors able to detect and measure the degree of stretching of the fibers. A type of undergarment, which singers can wear to monitor and play back the movement of their breathing, was designed by the researchers to test their new fabric.

“Singing is particularly close to home, as my mom is an opera singer — she’s a soprano. I really wanted to capture this expertise in a tangible form,” says Afsar.

Data was collected from the garment’s sensors while the singer performed. It was then turned into tactile feedback, which could be used to teach untrained vocalists to mimic the singer’s breathing pattern. The same approach could be used to help athletes learn how to control their breathing.

“We eventually were able to achieve both the sensing and the modes of actuation that we wanted in the textile, to record and replay the complex movements that we could capture from an expert singer’s physiology and transpose it to a nonsinger, a novice learner’s body,” explains Afsar. “So, we are not just capturing this knowledge from an expert, but we are able to haptically transfer that to someone who is just learning.”

“Everybody has to breathe. Breathing has a major impact on productivity, confidence, and performance. Most importantly, proper breathing can help when recovering from surgery or depression. For example, breathing is so important for meditation,” notes senior author Professor Hiroshi Ishii, director of the Tangible Media Group and associate director of MIT Media Lab.

The physiology of breathing is quite complex and identifying which muscles are being used to breathe remains a challenge to this day. To address this, the researchers designed a separate module that monitors the wearer’s muscle groups as they breathe in and out. But their system could also be used to study other types of muscle movements and activities, the researchers say.

“Many of our artists studied amazing calligraphy, but I want to feel the dynamics of the stroke of the brushes, which might be accomplished with a sleeve and glove made of this closed-loop-feedback material. Olympic athletes might sharpen their skills by wearing a garment that reproduces the movements of a top athlete, whether a weightlifter or a skier,” Ishii adds.

A manufacturing system that is capable of producing longer filaments is already on the horizon, along with other technical improvements. The findings were presented at the Association for Computing Machinery’s User Interface Software and Technology online conference.

South West News Service writer Tom Campbell contributed to this report.

True sportswear: New ‘OmniFibers’ material ‘trains you’ to breathe like pro athletes