High-tech Smart Underwear
A novel piece of underwear combining advanced textiles and innovative wearable technology aims to solve the problem of urine loss, an issue that remains taboo although many women suffer from it.
High-tech Smart UnderwearBy Kai-yuan Deng
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 620 )
At the Wearable Technologies Conference 2017 Europe, held in Munich in February, over 400 products from more than 60 countries around the globe were competing for the Wearables Technologies World Cup.In the healthcare & wellness category, a pair of smart “bladder control” underpants designed in the Netherlands and manufactured in Taiwan won the top prize.
The smart underwear, which has already gained FDA Class II certification (required for medical devices such as hearing aids, blood pressure monitors and surgical gloves) looks just like a typical pair of lacy underwear. Thanks to a sensor that can be snapped on to the underwear, which is made from highly absorbent, conductive lacy fabric made in Taiwan, women can record when urine loss occurs and how much urine leaks from their bladder. The sensor can be linked to a mobile phone app that provides a customized exercise plan to strengthen weakened pelvic floor muscles.
The idea for the smart underwear was born out of the desire to address a widespread yet hardly talked about problem in women’s health – involuntary urine loss or incontinence, which can occur when sneezing, jumping or getting up from a chair. In Europe, Japan and the United States more than 1,000 women have already tried the novel underwear.
Especially after giving birth, one in three women is affected by this problem because their pelvic floor muscles have been weakened.
Seventy percent of affected women can markedly improve bladder control after doing Kegel exercises to make the pelvic floor muscles stronger. However, as Chuang Ya-lin, gynecologist at Cheng Hsin Hospital in Taipei, points out, most women are too embarrassed about their leaky bladder to seek medical aid. And many abandon the Kegel exercises before these can bear fruit.
Valer Pop, one of the product’s inventors and CEO of the Dutch technology startup LifeSense Group, points out that most women with leaky bladders turn to the most obvious solution - sanitary napkins or diapers. However, this also means missing a chance at regaining control over their bladders,so that they might have to wear diapers for the rest of their lives.
Regaining Control witha Fun App
As Pop observes, women who suffer from a leaky bladder constantly fear having accidents during the day. Many feel this seriously affects their daily routine, and some even quit their jobs for fear of embarrassment.
The smart underwear provides three innovative features that enabled it to win the top award in the healthcare category despite fierce competition from other wearable gadgets.
First, the sensor records when urinary accidents occur, which is important for determining suitable rehabilitative exercises.
Pop points out that urine leaking during vigorous exercise such as jogging and running or during moderate movements such as sitting down or standing up requires different muscle-strengthening exercises.For the traditional diagnosis of bladder control issues, physicians need to use an invasive procedure. However, if women use the sensor, the time, place and quantity of urine leaks can be recorded. Based on this data, it is possible to determine which muscles need to be trained. The accompanying mobile phone app provides relevant exercise videos with instructions for the user.
If users stick to their daily exercise regime, they will experience a marked improvement in bladder control within a few months. In the past, many women broke off their Kegel exercises because they did not see immediate success. Pop says that real-time notifications are a good way of convincing recuperating patients to stick with their exercises.
Gynecologist Chuang points out that it was not possible in the past to monitor a patient’s rehabilitation once they returned home. With the wearable sensor, physicians can obtain more information while the game-like app allows people to strengthen traditional health education in an entertaining way.
As Pop explains, the smart underwear was deliberately designed to look like ordinary panties in order to prevent users from feeling the stigma of being “not healthy.”Since the smart underwear is washable, it contributes to reducing trash from disposable panties, diapers or sanitary napkins.
Since the novel underwear required a highly absorbent fabric to be a viable alternative to disposable products, Pop travelled to Taiwan, which is known for its strength in developing functional textiles. There, Pop teamed up with researchers at the Taiwan Textile Research Institute (TTRI).
Instead of using a humidity-absorbing chemical coating or finish, a process commonly used for functional fabrics, the fabric developed by TTRI relies on a technology that "cuts open” fibers. The scientific principle behind this technology is that the hair-fine fibers are cut open toward the core, which makes them unfold like petals, thus increasing the water-absorbing surface area.
Lin Chen-chu, head of TTRI’s Department of Raw Material and Yarns, acknowledges that the novel fabric costs two to three times as much as ordinary functional fabrics. However,the water absorbency of functional fabrics with chemical finishes gradually declines after 20 to 30 washing cycles. Since the smart underwear was supposed to be marketed with a two-year warranty, Pop and the TTRI went for the development of the more expensive cutting technology.
On top of that, the skin compatibility of the surface modified fibers is better than that of ordinary functional fabrics, and therefore it is particularly suitable for underwear.
The success of this smart textile product is not only the result of international cooperation. It also made obsolete the traditional business model where engineers take the lead in developing products that are pushed onto the market with uncertain consumer acceptance. Pop’s company first diagnosed a customer need, then enlisted the help of 100 women to act as consultants during the two-year-long development process. The women would bring up problems and requests, and the engineers were tasked to find solutions.
The linkage between the technology and the textile industries has meanwhile become a hot topic. Pop posits that technology remains important but that products will only be able to attract attention if they can meet consumer needs.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz