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Imagine you are out on a run; while running, you are measuring your heartbeat to ensure there are no problems. However, instead of wearing the dead weight of a wristwatch, there is already a sensor comfortably embedded within your shirt that has it covered. Does that sound like technology of the future? Well, a research group at NC State is developing it right now.

Led by Textile Technology Program Director Jesse Jur, Nano-EXtended Textiles (NEXT) is an NC State research group that studies the design of “smart” textiles. In addition to striving to make clothing more comfortable, they also look at things like the implementation of devices into textiles that can do things like take measurements, harvest energy and store energy.

“We leverage different processes and different designs from the nanoscale all the way up to the macroscale to see if we can embed electronics into textiles,” said Braden Li, a senior level Ph.D. student on the research group.

The aforementioned sensor-embedded shirt is actually the project Li oversees. Specifically, the sensor is a low and self-powered device that can take a person’s electrocardiogram, meaning it would measure the heart’s electrical activity. For this project, NEXT is working with Advanced Self-Powered Systems of Integrated Sensors and Technologies (ASSIST) at NC State, as well as collaborators at Penn State who are making supercapacitors for the shirt. However, it isn’t as easy as just making a wearable heart monitor. 

“You have all these different components,” Li said. “Now you need to wire them all together, and then you need to wire them all together on a shirt, and you have to make sure it looks good, and you have to make sure it’s washable. You’ve got to make sure it’s not impeding the comfort of the user.”

Clearly, it isn’t enough for a sensor to work; the device also needs to be comfortable, which can be a difficult balance. 

“There are these really smart textiles, which is great, but they’re not really practical in the real world,” said Marissa Noon, a third-year studying textile engineering. “They’re not comfortable; they don’t stand up well… so it’s really important to have a flexible piece of fabric that you’re able to move around in but also measures accurately.”

The members of the NEXT research team are more than equipped for these challenges. The group members have a wide range of specialties. Li, for example, looks at the big picture of how the small components will fit together, while Noon might work with something more specific, like researching and testing how well certain screen-printed materials conduct electricity to find good sensors that work well on comfortable and flexible materials.

Shirts aren’t the only projects they work on. Researchers like Noon worked on the development of a smart sock that could potentially reduce the recovery time of a sprained ankle from four to six weeks to two to three, while still allowing for some activity during the recovery period.

“People who are going 24/7 can’t afford to just sit down or have their foot up at their desk job,” Noon said. “I’m really interested in moving towards in-home, remote wellness, taking it out of the doctor’s hands and putting it more into your hands.”

The research and work being done at NEXT is very exciting, and their researchers are using their endless creativity to combine technology with art to make the unique, useful and comfortable clothing of the future. Look out because, someday soon, you might find the Nike or Adidas sections lined with NEXT gear.

“The community is so welcoming, they are so helpful, they want you to learn, and they also want to learn,” Noon said. “Having that lab experience is just priceless. And I get excited to work, and that’s when you know you’re doing something that you love.”