On a mission to improve the usability and wearability of spacesuits, the students at the University of Minnesota were given design briefs by NASA to solve current problems with flightsuit design. From the design of modular (and comfortable) flexible displays and controls to multi-modal alert systems, the students came up with novel solutions that used magnets, crimp fasteners, conductive fabrics and threads.
In the second part of the Fashioning Spacesuits series, Valérie Lamontagne of 3lectromode interviews the students, along with Dr. Lucy Dunne and Cory L. Simon, to learn about the material explorations and creative solutions they used to address particular problems related to human spaceflight, which wearable technologies could solve or enhance.
Design Brief # 1: Design a Reconfigurable E-Textile Garment
“Develop an astronaut flight suit or stand‐alone garment that allows for optimum mobility and comfort while supporting quick attachment of simple display and control elements mounted on fabric swatches. The garment must provide power to the swatches and the ability to attach up to 8 different swatches simultaneously at different locations. Swatches should utilize attachment methods appropriate to positioning on the body. Students should deliver the functioning garment with at least two example swatches.”
Why would it be useful to have detachable components on garments? Why would accessories (such as back-packs, helmets etc.) not be enough?
L.D.: Cory can speak to NASA’s objectives in these, but I’ll give my perspective as well – there are reasons to be able to re-configure a modular garment, with many of the same benefits of any modular system (e.g. interchangeable parts, adaptability, etc.) but some of the more interesting aspects of that particular project for me lie in the challenges of actually implementing the system.
You can’t just stitch the circuit in and leave it there, you have to deal with temporary fastening systems that introduce user experience and usability variables, and you have to route the system from a central point to many peripheral points. That’s a considerable challenge in layout, which may not seem apparent at first.
Kaila Bibeau, Ashton Frith, Lucie Mulligan (students): Detachable components on garments allow for freedom of movement as well as ease of reach for the users. Backpacks and other means of holding accessories add unneeded bulk and can interfere with the users’ movements. Having swatches have the ability to attach at different locations allows for customization of needs/tools for the user at any time.
C.S.: First, we want all human interfaces to be as easy to use and non-intrusive as possible. Astronauts keep very busy in space and it’s important that we develop systems that improve their efficiency and productivity. Interfaces must be easy to learn, configure, and use and not cause discomfort or distraction. If done correctly, wearable systems can be very good at meeting these needs – interfaces are always within reach but disappear from the user’s attention when not in use.
A reconfigurable garment has several advantages:
- As the user’s task and needs change, so can the garment’s functionality. It can quickly and easily be optimized for each task.
- Different users’ garments can have different functionality located at different points on the body. People have unique preferences and the reconfigurable approach supports that.
- New displays, controls, and sensors can easily be added. If a future science experiment could benefit from a wearable interface, there is very little overhead to adding that functionality to a garment.
- On the ground, the same garment can be used to evaluate new wearable interfaces.
We avoid things like backpacks and helmets because they are bulky and uncomfortable in space. Since there is no convection without gravity (heat doesn’t rise), astronauts tend to heat up quickly if they are wearing things that restrict air circulation.
What are the challenges in developing reliable circuits that conform to an ergonomic design?
L.D.: Well you have the standard challenges of durability, insulation, and comfort, but you also have the new tradeoff in that particular challenge of balancing usability with security.
Kaila Bibeau, Ashton Frith, Lucie Mulligan: The biggest challenge when creating a reliable circuit within an ergonomic design was where to place and route the leads themselves. Certain leads were required to cross over seams, such as the shoulder seam, where lots of movement occurred. We were able to create a secure circuit, by working very carefully and having a very low margin of error.
How did the students resolve the problem of the weak connection points between the flexible e-textile and electronic components?
L.D.: Primarily through fasteners. They focused on using crimp fasteners for the more permanent/durable connections, and magnetic fasteners for the more temporary, interface-heavy connections.
Kaila Bibeau, Ashton Frith, Lucie Mulligan: We did not run into much of an issue with a weak connection between the e-textile and electronic component, because we were able to create large and secure enough attachments at all points. We used conductive thread, tape and fabric to sew pads and connection points large enough to secure a reliable connection.
How did the magnets work out?
L.D.: The magnets worked ok, but there was not time in the project to iteratively explore types of magnets. They used the set of rare-earth magnets that I had on hand, which are very small and don’t have an additional mechanical component. The magnets they tested in their lab research were stronger and also had a mechanical component – but were actually too strong, they tore the test fabric and would have been too difficult to easily detach if more than one were used.
Kaila Bibeau, Ashton Frith, Lucie Mulligan: The magnets worked great in our suit! The polarization of magnets allowed us to create swatches that could only be attached one way, therefore reducing user error. As far as our research goes, as far as our NASA team counterparts, magnets work the same in space, and are being used in both of our prototypes.
Design Brief #2: Multimodal Caution and Warning
“Design a stand alone system that activates a warning by stimulating at least three senses simultaneously. The chosen modalities are: audio, tactile, and visual. Because one or more senses may be disabled, alarms should have the best possible chance of being perceived at any given time.”
Did you collaborate with cognitive scientists to determine how perception is affected by the quality, placement, and intuitive reaction of each modality?
L.D.: They did not collaborate with cognitive scientists, but they learned quite a bit of cognitive science for an apparel course. They actually performed original experiments as well, with custom-built actuators, to test perception and placement effects. They also interviewed test subjects about the qualitative aspects (intuition, affective response).
Jessica Loomis, Grace Lorig, and Mai Yang (students): We did not. Our first phase of developing the design was to do as much research as possible on audio, visual, and tactile modalities, device placement, human factors engineering, and so forth. There were many resources out there for us to help us narrow down how perception is affected by factors like quality, placement, and intuitive reaction. It also helps that our professor, Dr. Lucy Dunne, is quite the expert in functional clothing.
What was the biggest challenge in working with multimodal sense apparatuses? Did you discover one sense is more “sensitive,” for example?
L.D.: They didn’t control for sensitivity (very difficult to establish a baseline or scale across modalities). I think the biggest challenge was just the amount of new information they had to deal with. Sensory perception and cognition are not traditionally part of the apparel curriculum in this way, so they spent a lot of their early time reading human factors textbooks. The secondary challenge was building the actuator systems — none of these students had really ever worked with electronics in any way before the course.
Jessica Loomis, Grace Lorig, and Mai Yang: It’s always a balancing act between comfort and function, and the technical aspect of this project posed as a huge challenge for us. The biggest challenge was trying to figure out how all the alarms could work together and not have one alarm interfere with another alarm. Another challenge to that was figuring out how to map the wires throughout the jacket so that it’s fully functional and comfortable for the user to wear.
It’s always a balancing act between comfort and function, and the technical aspect of this project posed as a huge challenge for us.
What “alarms” worked best on which senses? Did you have any surprises of cross-modal sensitivity, i.e. kinesthetic reactions you did not expect?
L.D.: They tested easily available actuators (because they would need to prototype the garment after the research phase), and their research experiments were limited to uni-modal evaluation. They looked at effects of patterns (flashing/pulsing alarms vs. steady) and ability to accurately detect patterns (bandwidth of the modality).
Jessica Loomis, Grace Lorig, and Mai Yang: One time we were testing the effectiveness of vibrations as a tactile stimulant on a user. We wanted to test how noticeable the vibrations felt when they went off. We asked her to raise her hand when she felt the vibrations. There were a couple times she raised her hand when the vibrations didn’t even go off. We call that “phantom vibrations”.
L.D.: I believe their user tests involved varying the placement and quality (solid vs. pulsed) alarms while users were engaged in an appropriate “distraction” task. They measured response time and accuracy, and then followed up with a test of pattern detection.
Jessica Loomis, Grace Lorig, and Mai Yang: When testing a sense, we tried to block out at least one other sense. When we were testing tactile alarms with vibrating motors, we gave the test subjects headphones so that their audio perception was preoccupied (and so they could not hear the vibrating motors go off). With audio alarms, we gave the test subjects an engaging computer game to play to occupy their visual perception. We’re also trying to distract the users to see if the alarms were even effective enough to catch their attention. If an astronaut is working on a project in the ISS, we better make sure that they can at least see, hear, or feel the alarm go off!
Would astronaut’s senses be affected? Did you plan for changes in sense awareness as a result of human spaceflight environment?
L.D.: Cory can probably answer that better than I can – but the students did plan for the working position of the body in micro-gravity (the “floating” position is different from our normal position on earth) in terms of perception and visible body areas to mount alarms. They also took into account inter-personal perception, displaying alarms on the body of another crewmember.
Jessica Loomis, Grace Lorig, and Mai Yang: We did consider the space environment as a factor when affecting an astronaut’s senses. For example, the atmospheric pressure is very different in a microgravity environment, therefore, sound waves travel differently. It can make it hard for crewmembers to hear audio alarms if not placed effectively. We also found that astronauts tend to lose their sense of smell in space (which affects their sense of taste too!) so we didn’t look into those 2 modalities.
C.S.: The human body undergoes many changes as a result of reduced gravity and the spacecraft environment. For example, vision degrades and the face becomes more round as fluids shift inside the body without gravity. Hearing can also degrade, but this is due to the constant background noise of fans and spacecraft systems.
If your readers are really interested, they can check out NASA-STD-3001 – Man Systems Integration Standards . There are sections on how human spaceflight affects body measurements, cognition, and perception. It’s a fascinating document, but be warned, it is a technical document.
We didn’t ask the students to consider these changes during their project. We were more interested in how they designed the garment, but we were very happy to see they considered the body’s natural posture in reduced gravity.
Your research led to the development of a jacket for cyclists. Could you tell us about it? Is it presently on the market or still in the prototype stage?
L.D.: That was the very last component of their project requirements – I asked them to translate the technology and innovation they had established for the space context into a product that would be interesting and useful on earth. This group applied their alarm system to a cycling application. The project only required that they design the consumer product and build a “looks-like” prototype – so their prototype for cyclists is not actually working. But it’s an interesting concept!
Jessica Loomis, Grace Lorig, and Mai Yang: This is currently in the prototype stage. Ideally, we wanted to show that our research and findings could be translated into a useful consumer product; that’s where the cycling jacket came in. These are some basic features on the jacket meant to keep the cyclist safe:
• LED lights placed on the right hand (which is the hand used to signal right and left turns) to shine at night for other cars to see.
• A speaker placed in the shoulder activates when bikers are near any sudden objects that might be of danger to their safety by being too close to it.