Words: Gabrielle Béland

Montreal ranks among the best cities for the tech industry in Canada and, with a recent boost in wearable technologies, is showing few signs of slowing down.

Hexoskin, a Montreal-based wearables company founded in 2006, introduced their latest suit this past December. It’s called the Astroskin, and Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques was one of the first to try it during a recent mission on the International Space Station.

The Astroskin is an undershirt equipped with sensors that, once in direct contact with skin, monitors a person’s blood oxygen levels, heart rate variability, blood pressure, activity levels, breathing rate, and skin temperature.

All this data is collected through a commander attached to the suit that transfers the information to an IOS app and software, where data is sorted out and stripped of information that identifies who it was collected from.

Hexoskin uses the data to research and develop algorithms and detection tools for numerous applications, including health research, clinical development, security and defense, sports and fitness, and space projects.

Hexoskin’s Astroskin wearable is equipped with sensors that monitor blood oxygen levels, heart rate variability, blood pressure, activity levels, breathing rate, and skin temperature. Infographic by Elisa Barbier.

Parts of the medical sector also use this data to help treat patients in areas like cardiology, neurology, and pediatrics.

Romain Lafargue, Hexoskin’s marketing and business development coordinator, said the Astroskin is a complete vital signs monitoring system, much like those found onboard ambulances and in hospitals.

Lafargue added the decision to use textiles to collect this kind of data was an obvious choice. It is non-invasive, especially compared to other methods like smart tattoos and hypodermic microchips.

While Hexoskin was originally specialized in wearables for sports, Lafargue said they saw an added value to market their undershirts for medical and pharmaceutical research.

For example, researchers at Columbia University’s Data Science Institute recently used the Astroskin to study stress and performance levels among surgeons. The data collected helped them understand how their bodies, and those around them, work during surgery.

“It makes sense to merge these two things together,” especially considering Montreal’s long history of textile manufacturing, said Joanna Berzowska, an associate professor at Concordia University in Design and Computation Arts.

Berzowska pointed out one issue with wearable accessories, like watches or pendants, is people have the option to not wear them or might forget to put them on. When it comes to garments, however, everybody needs to wear clothes, which means data can be collected all day and night.

Concordia University Engineering and Computer Science professor Jun Cai also sees the potential of such wearable tech to adapt to specific human-centered needs.

He explained while many new technologies have looked at ways to make humans replaceable, wearable technology often seeks to create opportunities that optimize human capacities.

“Human intelligence can be the more powerful factor,” he said.

Collecting data with smart clothing can also help doctors provide quality diagnostics at a distance and reduce patient visits to the hospital, especially for those with chronic illnesses. With such applications, patients can monitor their health simultaneously with their doctor and alert them to sudden changes.

While there’s plenty of excitement around wearable technologies at companies like Hexoskin, experts like Berzowska point out we’re not all about to become smart clothing-wearing cyborgs any time soon.

She believes a large-scale uptake of wearable technologies will be a slow process, with any noticeable shifts not coming for another five to 10 years. The reason, according to Berzowska, is that while technology advances at a high speed, society’s basic needs concerning body data — like tracking body weight and physical abilities — remain the same.

Additionally, Cai noted flaws in the technology, such as short battery life, data inaccuracy and high-costs, continue to keep next-generation wearables largely inaccessible to most.

According to Lafargue, Hexoskin will continue developing their garments, in hopes of slowly replacing pricey hospital monitoring systems and improving patient quality of life. The company recently also renewed its contract with the Canadian Space Agency, meaning its smart clothing technology will soon again be heading to a galaxy not so far away.