Auckland scientist Dr Ben O’Brien has pioneered the development of small, light and soft, stretchy sensors that can measure movement of the human body and transmit the information to a smart phone app.
Earlier this year, he formed a company – StretchSense – to start selling the technology to global customers in healthcare, rehabilitation, sports training, animation and gaming.
“Our sensors are so precise and reliable that they can be used for anything you want to measure,” says O’Brien. “One example is rehabilitation where a healthcare professional wants to track something, like how an injury is improving over time.”
O’Brien has won the 2013 Prime Minister’s MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist award and plans to use his prize money of $200,000 to take the technology to the next level by developing an intuitive skin-tight under garment that can monitor and interpret body language, gestures and posture to accurately read the emotions of the wearer.
His goal is to create an ‘emotionally aware’ body suit that he expects will produce a range of practical technologies that can be commercialised by his company.
“Huge investment is going into clothing and accessories that have technology embedded in them, (such as the Google glass wearable computer),” O’Brien says. “But if those portable products are not able to pick up non-verbal messages and be sensitive to people’s emotions it could be disastrous.
“If you become frustrated while sitting at a computer, you can get up and walk away but that’s not the case if the computer is embedded in your t-shirt or your shoes. Wearable technology that can listen to body language is so far an unexplored area, but I see it as a crucial enabler to this fast growing industry.”
O’Brien’s field of expertise is electroactive polymers, materials that are designed to change in size or shape when stimulated by an electric field. O’Brien invented a dielectric elastomer switch that allows the technology to be directly embedded into artificial muscle devices, giving them life-like reflexes.
O’Brien says StretchSense’s point of difference is its ability to customise sensors to the needs of the customer “This is a boom time for soft sensing and we are riding the wave.”