Engineers at Rice University are developing methods for incorporating haptics into clothing. "Of the technologies that have incorporated haptics, wearable devices often still require bulky external hardware to provide complex cues, limiting their use in day-to-day activities," said Barclay Jumet, a PhD student in Mechanical Engineering. To that end Jumet, ME Assistant Professor Daniel Preston and ME Department Chair Marcia O'Malley created a textile-based haptic feedback system.
Comprised of a belt and textile sleeves, the wearables rely on fluidic signals — such as pressures and flow rates — to control the delivery of complex haptic cues, including sensations like vibration, tapping and squeezing. A small, lightweight carbon dioxide tank affixed to the belt feeds airtight circuits incorporated in the heat-sealable textiles, causing quarter-sized pouches — up to six on each sleeve — to inflate with varying force and frequency.
The team envisions an immediate application of navigation for the hearing- or sight-impaired. "Twelve pouches across two sleeves progressively inflate to indicate one of four directions: forward, backward, left or right," Jumet explains. "In the future, this technology could be directly integrated with navigational systems, so that the very textiles making up one's clothing can tell users which way to go without taxing their already overloaded visual and auditory senses — for instance by needing to consult a map or listen to a virtual assistant."
Moreover, the wearable textile device could incorporate other sensing and control mechanisms to allow users with limited vision or hearing to detect obstacles and navigate dynamic environments in real time.
"One of the big advantages with using these smart textiles for haptic devices is that they bring a lot more freedom and flexibility to the design space," said O'Malley. "We're no longer constrained by the size or geometry of components that need to be incorporated into a design."
On top of that, the team says these wearables are durable.
The heat-sealable textiles are resilient to wear and tear, making the device suitable for intensive daily use. "We tested the durability of our haptic textiles by washing a device 25 times then cutting it open with a knife and ironing a textile patch over the cut," Jumet said. "It continued to work as intended after repeated washing, cutting and repairing."
Here's a look at their system, being trialed by a subject in Houston:
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