Milan engineers weave smart tech with high fashion to help curb teen obesity


In fashion-forward Milan, karate student Ulrike Lanting dons a trendy new clothing style while high-kicking her opponents on the mat. It’s not runway couture, but the rising movement in fashion – wearable health technology – will help her live a healthier lifestyle.

Her shirt, wired with electrode sensors, works together with a wristband and app with a virtual companion to send health information to her smartphone or tablet. “You can understand what is going on with your body,” Ulrike said. “If you have a goal – like burning calories and eating a certain amount – you’re able to see the numbers in front of you and adjust your behavior.”

Ulrike is one of 400 teenagers in Milan, Barcelona, Nottingham and Edinburgh to test the PEGASO Smart Shirt System, which tracks physical activity, sleep duration, transportation habits and diet through a shirt or sports-bra system. Giuseppe Andreoni and Paolo Perego of Politecnico di Milano, a university in Italy, developed the system to help reduce obesity in teenagers. They partnered with the PEGASO Fit 4 Future project consortium, which coordinated a team of 16 partners from six European countries with Politecnico di Milano to develop the product.

“We wanted to develop a new sort of wearable solution to combine with a coaching companion to improve health and help prevent disease by starting earlier in life,” Paolo said. “This is why we targeted teenagers and created a health-measurement tool to encourage them to eat a healthy diet, move more, motivate them and also challenge them with a game through the app.”

Modeled to motivateModeled to motivate

To bring the wearable system to life, the Pegaso consortium leveraged the TI MSP430F5438A microcontroller (MCU).

MSP430™  MCUs are both powerful and offer low energy consumption,” Paolo said. “No one wants to spend time charging their wearable.”

The electrode sensors on the shirt and wristband collect and integrate data such as heart rate, temperature and movements. When the data is transmitted via Bluetooth to smartphones or tablets, users can enter the type and amount of food and water consumed. Users can also play a set of games to learn food nutrition properties.

“As people become more health conscious, the use of wearable health technology is ramping,” said Yiannis Papantonopoulos, a manager at our company. “The MSP430F5438A MCUs provide the small form factor, low-power sensing and performance we needed. Biosensing capabilities are also really important for monitoring real-time vital statistics, coupled with cloud connectivity for data logging and health performance management.”

Layering fashion with technology

The idea and impetus for this innovation comes amid surging interest in wearable tech in fashion around the globe, and more money (8 percent of the total European Union healthcare budget) spent on the issue of teenage obesity, according to the European Commision for Public Health. The fashion world is emerging as a catalyst in advancing technology.

Custom-tailored outfits made from 3D printers are now reality. Fashion shows have become technology events with holographic projections, live broadcasts from bloggers and retailers, and real-time purchasing power for those in attendance. Augmented reality has made it possible to try on virtual outfits with ease.

“Fashion is becoming increasingly important in wearables – it’s got to be comfortable, functional and yet fashionable,” Yiannis said.

Testing the runway

Engineering and designing the solution was one thing. Making it suitable for real-world use was another process that involved a series of focus groups and multiple rounds of prototypes. The team then conducted the pilot study that used the smart shirt and an app to track all facets of the users’ health while participating in regular activity and sports. The sensors in the shirt are adhered with strong glue, and the shirt can undergo as many as 150 washings – just like a normal T-shirt – without issue.

Ulrike participates in a karate competition.
The PEGASO system is more than a shirt or smart clothes. It is a complete system that also helps keep track of which food is eaten. Ulrike’s mother, Maria Renata Guarneri, also noticed many positive attributes of the solution for her daughter. “The system didn’t encourage dieting excessively, but rather understanding what a balanced diet was, compared to energy expenditure,” Maria said. “It wasn’t about encouraging obsession with weight or intense exercise.  It was all about balance.”

The system receives all the inputs, considers them and proposes changes. For the first week, it simply analyzed behavior. Ulrike said she liked the food diary feature the most. “It helped me notice that even though I was trying to eat in a balanced way, I would sometimes forget to consume enough water,” she said.

New applications

Back in Milan, Giuseppe and Paolo are now developing new applications for the technology. A swimsuit with embedded technology will measure heartbeat and stroke pace. The team used the SimpleLink™ Bluetooth® low energy CC2640R2F wireless MCU LaunchPad™ development kit along with Tiny Wireless Receiver for Low Power Wearable Applications Reference Design.

“We are centering the Swimfit technology on the MSP430 MCU because it worked well in the PEGASO smart-shirt system,” Paolo said. “The accompanying development board and reference design helped springboard our efforts by reducing time needed to design.”

Yiannis said care must be taken when monitoring activity in teens. “It’s all  about making healthy choices and maintaining an active lifestyle, not focusing on looks. We hope advancing this technology and exploring its possibilities will lead to a healthier future for our youth.”