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This Shirt Is (Really) Sensitive

OMsignal’s version of wearable tech is a T-shirt with knitted electrodes to sense your heart and breathing rates.

One of the biggest challenges that wearable gadget makers like Google, Fitbit, and Jawbone face is convincing people to don their devices in the first place. A startup called OMsignal thinks the key is to fit the technology into something you already won’t leave the house without: a shirt.

Holy shirt: Electrodes knitted into the fabric together with a small attached gadget lets the wearer of an OMsignal shirt track his heart rate, breathing, and activity.

On Thursday, OMsignal unveiled four shirts that sense your heart and breathing levels via electrodes knitted into the fabric. These signals, plus details of your movements, are recorded by a gadget that snaps into a pocket on the side of the shirt; an accompanying iPhone app shows stats like calories burned and steps moved and aims to tell you things like how much energy you have left before you’ll feel spent.

OMsignal’s shirt and the accompanying gadget will cost $240; additional shirts are expected to cost about $100. The first shirts will ship to customers this summer. At first, they’ll be sold through the company’s website. But OMsignal cofounder and CEO Stéphane Marceau hopes other apparel makers will eventually add its technology to their own clothing.

The first shirts are for men; women’s shirts are expected to follow in the fall. “We said, ‘Okay, we’re a technology company, let’s do the technology, and we’ll deal with the fashion element after.’ It was easier to do a good job on fashion for men,” Marceau says.

OMsignal’s shirts are compression garments—already popular among some athletes and patients recovering from certain surgeries to help improve circulation—which Marceau says is helpful because it keeps the electrodes that are embedded in the fabric close to the skin. While the shirts are primarily aimed at athletes, the Montreal-based company envisions them being used for monitoring medical conditions and, potentially, in everyday life. For instance, your shirt might eventually be able to automatically adjust your Internet-connected thermostat based on your vital signs.

Marceau believes a shirt is also a better way to gather biological signals than, say, a wristband, because it can capture heart rate and breathing rate closer to where they happen, yielding more accurate data.

Marceau wore one of the shirts—a black one with an “OM” embedded in the fabric of its chest—during a meeting at MIT Technology Review’s San Francisco office. A side pocket houses a prototype of what he calls the “little black box,” and he said its battery will run for 30 hours before needing to be recharged.

The shirt’s electrodes are knitted with silver-based thread into the torso area. The electrodes record your breathing rate and your heart’s electrical activity, the latter of which can be used to determine heart rate and variations over time. A gadget about the size of a stack of credit cards in a shirt pocket also collects data about your activity via an accelerometer, magnetometer, and gyroscope. After some basic analysis, the data is transferred to the OMsignal iPhone app via low-energy Bluetooth so it can be uploaded to a server for remote analysis. The results are returned to the app for you to see.

Marceau showed me a prototype app running on an iPhone that appears to update in real time with his heart and breathing rates. His breathing rate is illustrated with a circle on the screen, the opacity of which rises and falls as he inhales and exhales.

The accuracy of activity-sensing wearables is often called into question—I’ve tested several of them myself and found that they all took different measurements even when worn on the same arm simultaneously (see “Fitness Trackers Still Need to Work Out Kinks”). Marceau says the company hasn’t conducted any clinical tests of the shirts’ accuracy, but he claims they stack up well against popular devices like the Fitbit.

Lucy Dunne, an associate professor of apparel design and wearable technology at the University of Minnesota, says that taking clinically accurate readings of physiological signals is hard with textiles because it’s difficult to get good contact with the body. “But it seems as if they’re aiming more at a lifestyle, quantified-self application,” she says. “From that, you can extrapolate if there’s a little bit of consistency in the signal you can still get an estimate, which can be really useful as well.”

As far as durability, Marceau says the shirt has held up through 50 wash cycles so far. It has made it through the dryer, although OMsignal recommends air drying. Though the black box is water-resistant, it’s not meant to be washed with the shirt.

Even if the shirts hold up in the wash, Becky Stern, director of wearable electronics at DIY electronics company Adafruit Industries, points out that sweat could eventually prove harmful. That’s because there’s salt in sweat, and salt corrodes silver, which could reduce the conductivity of the metal in the shirt.

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