Tuesday February 10th, 2015

Pierre-Alexandre Fournier’s iPhone knows whenever he takes a deep breath. Not just how quickly he breathes, but how deeply: the actual volume of air he takes in. His heartbeat, too. Not just his pulse rate, but the exact shape of the electrical signals going through his heart: his ECG.

Fournier is one of the co-founders of Hexoskin, a company that makes shirts with inbuilt biometric sensors. These shirts are designed to give athletes the same sort of data they could get from a performance lab—for example, heart rate recovery and lung capacity—but in more natural environments and without needing to be hooked up to a machine.

Each shirt has two conductive bands, one around the top of the chest, and another around the bottom. “The advantage of being on the upper body is that everything is happening here,” Fournier explains. “All the vital signs come from here. All the vital organs are on the upper body.” The bands make contact with the skin at three points using patches of silver woven into the fabric. These contacts are used to measure the electric potential on the skin generated by electrical signals in the heart.

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The area inside each band can also be calculated by measuring the strength of the magnetic field within the conductive ring. And by extrapolating the two area measurements, Hexoskin can estimate how a user’s lung volume changes as they breathe. Finally, the data-recording device, which connects to the shirt and fits into a small pouch near the hip, includes accelerometers that track the user’s movement. “Hexoskin gives you three-dimensional data,” Fournier says, “because we have movement, heart and breathing activity, it gives you a color picture of what is going on.”

Since the shirts went on sale in 2013, use by professional athletes has been growing. Several members of the Canadian Olympic team in Sochi last year used Hexoskin shirts, including sisters Justine and Chloé Dufour-Lapointe, who won gold and silver, respectively, in the dual moguls competition. The Brooklyn Nets strength and conditioning coach Dr. Jeremy Bettle also uses the shirts to track his players’ physiology both on and off the court. And Cirque du Soleil even uses Hexoskin to monitor its performers during training.

Not everyone who wears Hexoskin is an athlete, or an aspiring athlete, though. “Our clients are people with a project,” Fournier explains. “Most of them are training, but not all of them. They want to learn something, and they want to have numbers on what they do.”

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That client list includes both the Canadian Space Agency and NASA, and there are plans to equip astronauts on the International Space Station with the extraterrestrial version, Astroskin. Research groups are also using Hexoskin for work on post-traumatic stress disorder (Columbia University), aging (including Concordia University, Montreal), how extreme environments affect human physiology (the University of Quebec, Montreal), and sleep (including the University of Montreal). According to Fournier, one of Hexoskin’s customers even uses the shirt at work, analyzing their biometric data to determine which meetings are stressing them out, and then avoiding the people who negatively impact their readings.

The Hexoskin data-recording device retails online for $230, and the spandex shirts come in a tank top ($169), a long sleeve version ($199), and kids sizes ($149).

The battery on the recording device lasts around 14 hours, enough for a week’s worth of training for many people, and the device can store up to 150 hours of data. Users can monitor their vital signs through a mobile app available for iOS and Android devices, and can build their individual fitness profile by completing a series of four tests. “Tracking what you do in your life is positive in general,” Fournier says. “People tell us that it motivates them to train more because if you don’t do anything with it, it’s not going to be fun.” Hexoskin can even be used to monitor the quality of your sleep.

According to Fournier, one future use of Hexoskin shirts could be screening for possible concussions in sports. Though the shirts would not provide sufficient data to diagnose a concussion, they could be used to pick up some of the early symptoms, including breathing and heart rate irregularities, allowing team doctors to work out which players might need closer medical attention. Fournier also believes that physiological monitoring of players could have a significant impact on youth sports. As parents are made more aware of exactly what their children put their bodies through they might be empowered by the data to demand rule changes.

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