KTH Royal Institute of Technology: Wearable textile robotic muscles help singers with their breathing technique

Equipment for astronauts that enables them to sense objects they touch in space. Or an underclothing garment that helps Vocal Studies students to breathe correctly or to help in the recovery of patients with long covid. There are many potential applications for this “robotic” textile that KTH researcher Özgun Kilic Afsar has developed in collaboration with MIT Media Lab and Uppsala University.

A case-specific application of the technology, called OmniFiber, has been developed in collaboration with professional opera singer and KTH research engineer, Kelsey Cotton. It is a knitted garment that you wear on your upper body, which can be used to teach Vocal Studies students to breathe in the right way. It consists of artificial muscle fibres that stimulate the muscle groups they correspond to when you wear the garment.

“Opera singers control their breathing physiology much better than other people can. The respiratory muscle groups they use are much more complex than when you simply breathe with your chest and diaphragm. There are so many more muscles and muscle groups involved,” says Kilic.

Trained singing and breathing herself
In order to understand what Kelsey Cotton means when she talks about things such as “breathing with your back”, Kilic performed breathing technique exercises with her during the study. Being able to take part in this way as researchers themselves and experience what they are researching into, is part of KTH Professor and Kilic’s supervisor Kristina Höök’s research method, Somaesthetic Interaction Design.

The under garment, that senses breathing movements and communicates them directly to vocal students, will now be used within vocal pedagogy.

Could help long covid patients
This garment could also be used to help the recovery of patients suffering from long covid or sleep apnoea.

“It can physically stimulate your respiratory muscles to help you breathe in a healthier way,” says Kilic.

The technology can also be used to help athletes perform better. Another potential application of the technology is outfits for astronauts. Apparel that in contrast to the bulky spacesuits available today could mean that astronauts in real time can sense and experience objects that they touch, she says.

MIT did a video about the innovation
Kilic developed this innovation as a visiting researcher at MIT Media Lab for ten months in 2020 together with Seung Hee Jeong from Uppsala University and Ali Shtarbanov, a researcher at MIT Media Lab.

“Seung Hee Jeong worked with the sensing system, I worked with activation and Ali Shtarbanov developed the control system,” she explains.

The innovation was so good that MIT decided to make a video about it in connection with their news article. That is not something that happens every day, according to Kilic.

“They probably made a video because people can relate to our solution, I presume. It is not that often that you can reduce one part of some technology and genuinely make it so usable that people can see the benefits of it,” she says.

Özgun Kilic Afsar has almost finished her second year of her doctoral studies, which she is doing as a part of the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research programme Energy Efficient Hardware for Touch Interactions. Thanks to her 10 months as a visiting researcher, she is now also an affiliated researcher at MIT Media Lab.

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