Wearable Sensors Make Workplaces Safer

By Catherine
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By Catherine Bolgar

close up of hands setting smart watch

Millions of people world-wide wear devices to track their activity, heart rate and sleep. The number of wearable sensors is expected to reach three billion by 2025. Employers are looking at how the devices can improve workplace safety, especially in dangerous or remote environments.

A hospital in Turin, Italy, experimented with a variety of wearable sensors as well as sensors incorporated into the environment—the Internet of Things, says Guido Boella, professor of computer science at the University of Turin, who was one of the researchers of the study, called Sensing Safety at Work. A dashboard showed  not only information from the sensors, but also a map of the hospital to pinpoint workers in distress.

Sensors on wristbands were given to employees in a laboratory where toxic substances were handled. “If they got sick or fell down, it set off an alarm and showed them on the map,” he says.

Another aspect of the study used sensors on bands on the wrist or body, or on necklaces, designed to avoid being invasive while employees worked, but which could signal problems by setting off an alarm via vibration, light or sound. A third experiment combined information about the dispersion of toxic substances in the air with the physiology of individuals.

Female scientist working in lab 7“We combined data from people with wearables with data from Internet of Things sensors”  detecting substances in the air, Dr. Boella says. “For many substances, the problem isn’t just a threshold level present, but how much of it is absorbed. That depends on a person’s activity, how long they are exposed, how high their heart rate is. The values from the body were combined with values from the Internet of Things sensors in the room to provide personalized alarms.”

Both the cost and size of sensors have diminished greatly in the past few years, but battery life is still limited, requiring either better batteries or more efficient hardware, says Saul Delabrida, assistant professor at the Federal University of Ouro Preto in Minas Gerais, Brazil.

Connections also are an issue. “The current state-of-the-art of the technology allows creating wearable devices with enough power-computing capabilities to process the data collected from the sensors without a Wi-Fi connection,” he says. “The sensors need to be connected to the module [that’s] able to execute an algorithm that provides information to the user in this strategy.”

Sensors can monitor workers for fatigue, overheating and cold, as well as location—to find a forestry worker alone in a remote place, for example. Already the mining industry uses sensors for detecting dangerous levels of dust and gases, and proximity sensors on both trucks and miners to reduce accidents. “When he raises a bucket of rocks, the driver doesn’t have a good view,” says Martin Lavallière, professor of health and kinesiology at the University of Quebec at Chicoutimi, Canada. An alarm in the truck warns the driver that a miner is nearby, while a wearable on the miner alerts him that he’s too near the truck.

Employers also can promote health and wellness through the activity trackers that many employees already wear, in a trend that reflects the BYOD—Bring Your Own Device—model for smart phones at work, Dr. Lavallière says, or they can choose one brand and provide it to all employees. Either way, the goal is to give incentives to employees, to make sure they get enough activity and maintain good health behaviors.

“If employees maintain their health they will be able to be more productive and more efficient, with fewer absences for sick leave, less ‘presenteeism’—when they show up for work sick and are not as productive,” he says.

Woman carpenter using circular saw.Employers could use the data on an individual level to encourage wellness, or could aggregate the information to gain insights into how employees react to situations at work. For example, “they could see that every time employees go to this workstation, their heart rate goes up,” Dr. Lavallière says. “Is that because the work is physically demanding, or because someone nearby is creating a stressful environment through their behavior, like yelling at people? When you look at the data from all the employees, you can say, ‘This job seems more stressful. How can we make it better? Should we separate the task in two?’”

Another question will be how employers deal with worker privacy and control.

The factory of the future could use these devices not to track whether someone is not feeling well, but whether they are making the right movements with their hands,” Dr. Boella says.

A wearable sensor could detect whether a worker is assembling an appliance in the authorized way. On the one hand, such monitoring could reduce repetitive-motion injuries. On the other, “there may be no more freedom to do things in a different way,” he says. “Not even controlling our bodies and movements.”

Tracking how many steps an employee takes or how long they sleep “could be seen as Big Brother at work,” Dr. Lavallière says.

In introducing wearable sensors in the workplace, employers need to explain the nature of the data collected and use incentives rather than punishment, he says, adding, “There will always be a conflict between the employee and employer. What’s important is that everyone draws benefits from the technology.”



Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe, now working as a freelance writer and editor with WSJ. Custom Studios in EMEA. For more from Catherine Bolgar, along with other industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion on LinkedIn.

Photos courtesy of iStock

Fashionably Connected

By Catherine
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By Catherine Bolgar


What if you could have a different dress to wear every day, without having a closet full of clothes? It’s already possible, thanks to the Internet of Things (IoT).

“Everything around us is digital. Why shouldn’t our clothes be digital as well?” asks Francesca Rosella, creative director and co-founder of CuteCircuit, a London-based digital fashion house. “In the near future, we predict that many devices will disappear and their functionality will be integrated in our clothes. Everything will be on the body.”

CuteCircuit started in 2004 with the “Hug Shirt.” A person wearing a Hug Shirt gives herself a squeeze. Sensors in the fabric detect the position, strength and duration of the touch. The data goes to the person’s phone to be sent to a friend. When the friend accepts the message, actuators in her own Hug Shirt will warm up and create the sensation that the sender’s arms are wrapped around the recipient.

Over the years, CuteCircuit has designed many collections: specialty products, haute couture and ready-to-wear. Several celebrities have worn the haute couture on the red carpet and onstage, including a skirt that displays a video of a tiger roaring.

The clothes use “Magic Fabric, developed by CuteCircuit, that can change color,” Ms. Rosella says.

The fabric can display anything as if it were your TV screen, but a soft fabric TV screen.”

cutecircuit_handbag_2Fabric—mostly silk because of its durability, but also cotton and cotton elastane—is fused with a layer of sensors or micro LEDs, and textile-conductive connectors that eliminate the need for wires. “They’re little nylon ribbons woven with gold and silver fibers,” she explains. “We don’t want anything dangerous in contact with the skin, so we coat it all with gold.”

Another layer of fabric is fused on top of the electronics layer, so the wearer feels only the soft fabric like a normal piece of clothing. The garments can be dry-cleaned or machine-washed at 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) and hung to dry. All the garments can be recharged via USB, and the small batteries snap directly into the garment with buttons.

cutecircuit_the_nieves_dress_2Ms. Rosella hopes CuteCircuit can lead a revolution against fast fashion. “Fashion shouldn’t be overconsumption of resources,” she says. “We only manufacture a certain amount, but with beautiful fabrics that last a long time. So you have one garment but can download many animations. You can have the same garment for a long time, but it feels like new.”

For example, a T-shirt allows the wearer to change the message on its front as often as desired, via an application. “You can display messages from friends,” Ms. Rosella says. “Everybody loved the idea of tweeting to your clothes. Digital fashion is a new form of self-expresslon.”

Apparel brands are also using the Internet of Things in order to communicate with their customers as traditional lines of communication are being disrupted by subscription services, online marketplaces and new retail outfits. And many of these are not owned by the brand, says Julie Vargas, director, global market development, technology solutions, of the Retail Branding and Information Solutions (RBIS) business of Avery Dennison Corp., a Glendale, California, maker of labeling and packaging solutions. The RBIS business is a global leader in apparel and footwear branding, packaging, labeling and RFID solutions.

“In the future, the one component that stays at the center of attention is the product,” Ms. Vargas says.

A special tag on clothes gives each item a unique digital fingerprint. The consumer can connect to the cloud-based Janela Smart Products Platform to upload the clothes. “Today, the mobile device is how people are interacting, but we expect it to evolve,” Ms. Vargas says. “The core is the platform that can integrate with sensors today and those of tomorrow.”

The platform, launched in April, gives apparel brands the ability to connect directly with consumers, regardless of where the item was purchased. It can provide information about the product; the story behind it, such as which celebrities have worn it; or information from other consumers, such as product reviews or suggestions for styling the garment with other items. The brand also can send out messages if the consumer wants (the consumer maintains the ability to refuse). “When you’re in or near the store, you can connect to find out what content is unlocked, like digital artwork or videos,” Ms. Vargas says.

At the same time, the Janela platform gives consumers an opportunity to talk to the brand.

A consumer can provide a product review for other users, but could also offer one-to-one communication with the designers,” Ms. Vargas says. “You could say, ‘I love this garment, but it wish it had pockets,’ or something like that.”

Sensors with near-field communication technology often aren’t washable, so sensors need to be removed before washing. However, QR codes, fabric labels and heat-transfer labels launder well. “There are a lot of different places to put the connector and ways the connector can look,” she says.

Avery Dennison and CuteCircuit both have incorporated ways to encourage consumers to recycle garments, to offer more transparency about where materials are sourced from and to expand the story of each item as consumers seek meaning in their purchases.


Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe, now working as a freelance writer and editor with WSJ. Custom Studios in EMEA. For more from Catherine Bolgar, along with other industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion on LinkedIn.

Photos courtesy of CuteCircuit