The New Power Dressing
Ever feel a bit sluggish getting out of a chair, or tire easily on a hike? Why not just put on an extra set of muscles?
This is the idea behind Menlo Park-based startup Seismic, which has developed a body suit that contains integrated robotics to give the wearer a subtle strength boost around their core. Go to stand up from a seated position, and the suit will read your movements and automatically engage, offering extra support around your lower back and hips with a gentle whirring sound.
Previously known as SuperFlex, Seismic was originally spun out of the SRI International research institute in California, where co-founder and CEO Rich Mahoney led the robotics team, including working on a programme for DARPA, the US government agency responsible for developing emerging technologies for defence, to design lightweight wearable robotics for military applications. He soon realised that there could also be a consumer market for a comfortable, mobility-enhancing product. “The big insight that we had very early on was that we really weren't innovating around robotics,” he says. “We were innovating around clothing.”
The Seismic suit is not an exoskeleton. It is not intended to do the muscles’ work for them, but to contribute about 15 to 30 percent of the power required (the exact amount depends on the wearer’s size). It consists of a textile bodysuit that looks like a short, sleeveless wetsuit, and contains electric components at key points around the body. It is designed to be discreet and can be worn alone or as a base layer.
Mahoney sees it as adding a new kind of functionality to everyday fashion. Instead of dressing for the weather, he says, you could dress for mobility. “We want people to just get up in the morning and get dressed, and not think ‘I'm putting something special on’, just ‘I'm putting my clothes on.’”
The key to the suit’s capability is its electric muscle technology. A pack on each thigh contains a lithium-ion battery and two artificial muscles, which are powered by motors and contract or expand as necessary, pulling on a fibre that runs through the suit. The force supplied by the muscles – up to 30 watts each – is distributed by gripping structures in the fabric around the waist and thighs. The design is informed by the body’s own biomechanics, with the artificial muscles mapping on to the hip flexors and extensors. Sensors embedded in the suit track the body’s movements and the forces generated, and a pack at the base of the wearer’s spine contains a microprocessor and acts as the suit’s ‘brains’.
Mahoney says that potential customers ultimately include “anyone who has a body and wears clothing”, but the company is initially targeting the ageing baby boomer generation. “As people age, they begin to lose strength, and that boomer generation has a high premium on maintaining an active lifestyle,” he says. Sarah Thomas, Seismic’s vice president of product, says that beta testers have used the suit while hiking, playing tennis and bocce, and going to the theatre or to functions that require them to stand for long periods of time.
Seismic plans to enter the market in some limited venues by mid-2019. The company has not yet settled on a price for the suit, but Mahoney says that it will be in the “bespoke, designer-level apparel range.”
At this stage, the suits are tailored to fit the individual, with plans for off-the-shelf sizes in the future. The fabric is a composite of stretch knits and stretch wovens, which vice president of design Chris Gadway says is inspired by sports performance wear. The design team is driven, he says, by the question: “Could you walk into a contemporary, modern, metropolitan fitness club and feel like you fit right in?”
Next, Seismic wants to use machine learning to let the suit learn someone’s requirements and preferences as they wear it. Mahoney gives the example of a teacher: perhaps the suit could adapt to their class schedule and automatically adjust the level of support it provides throughout the day, offering more assistance when they are standing for long periods of time and turning off when the school day ends. Future products could also address different parts of the body, such as the shoulders and arms, or ankles and knees. Mahoney says the company has received a lot of interest for worker safety applications too, but that it is currently positioning the suit as a wellness product. “Your level of mobility is directly linked to the quality of life you have.”