Physical therapy can be a debilitating experience for the body and psyche. There’s the discomfort from the exercises, as well as anxiety about whether you are doing them correctly. The monitoring devices you wear are bulky and stigmatizing, telegraphing that there’s something not quite right with you. Plus, if you’re elderly or suffering from cognitive conditions such as dementia, the process can seem like a slippery memory: What was I supposed to do? How was I supposed to do it? And what was it supposed to feel like?
One solution is Vigour, a knitted wool cardigan that uses aural feedback to motivate patients to move. Conceived of as a therapeutic device for older adults, the sweater features four integrated sensors— two in the lower back and one under each arm—which monitor the wearer’s activity during exercises and throughout the day.
Printed circuit boards bonded to the knit measure the stretch of each sensor. The PCBs then send that information via conductive fiber to a removable Bluetooth transmitter located on the neck of the cardigan.
Vigour’s accompanying iPad app uses this data to give direct feedback to both the sweater’s wearer and the physiotherapist, helping them both visualize progress. It also allows them to customize each sensor’s sound and vibration, providing another way to track effort in each targeted area.
Vigour’s unexpected form was “a very conscious decision” says interactive designer Martijn Ten Bhömer, who collaborated on the project with Dutch eldercare specialists De Wever. “An earlier prototype was a more tight-fitting shirt, but it was not comfortable and aesthetically pleasing enough for our target group of older adults,” he explains. “Plus, the families and caregivers thought it looked too much like a medical instrument.”
Thus Ten Bhömer—who is a Ph.D candidate in Industrial Design at Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e), in Holland—enlisted the help of Pauline van Dongen, a Dutch fashion designer known for her work with high-tech materials.
Together with knitwear designer Jesse Asjes, Van Dongen created Vigour’s bespoke merino fabric, weaving it on a Stoll machine at the TextielMuseum TextielLab in Tilberg, Holland. The duo also thermalbonded the electronics to the textile and handstitched the conductive yarns to the sensors.
The cardigan’s form affects the type of information that it can collect. Rather than precise biometric data, which would have required a compression-like garment, Vigour reports what Ten Bhömer calls “well-being” vitals, including general movement and data trends. “We don’t give feedback on exact metrics, because they don’t help with the overall goal of staying active,” he explains.
Since Vigour’s debut in October at Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven, Ten Bhömer has made significant improvements to the sweater’s software and sound control. Six versions of the unisex cardigan now exist, with the team envisioning further iterations that will allow the wearer and caregiver to customize the garment together, tailoring the location of its sensors and its color and shape.
There are no plans to make Vigour commercially available just yet. But it’s hard to believe there won’t be, as its seamless integration of sensors and fabric provide a new paradigm for biometric clothing. The knitwear introduces the possibility of turning everyday garments into wearable devices, as well as imbuing clothing with new ways to appeal to the senses, including with sound and light.
However, Ten Bhömer feels Vigour’s first lesson is how, as a wearable device, it puts fashion on equal footing with technology. “Most important is that people want to wear it because it is comfortable, beautiful, and fits their identity,” he says. “It’s a bonus that it has additional features that you might expect from a smart garment.”