Haptic Ski Pants
Integrating Electronics into Performance Sports Apparel
Turn the video volume UP to hear the haptic vibrations!
For this 3 week project, we were asked to design an outfit for Winter Paralympic athletes. I chose to design for visually impaired Para-Alpine skiers.
These skiers follow a guide through the course. The guide and the skier communicate using a bluetooth radio. Because of the visual impairment, the skier has a hard time seeing the guide, and relies heavily on the radio communication.
This means that one key way to boost the performance of the skier is enhancing this communication between the skier and the guide.
As an electrical engineer, I thought of Haptic feedback as an interesting and intuitive way to enhance this communication. Haptic feedback often refers to vibrating motors that give users a tactile response. Common examples are vibration video game controllers, vibration responses when pushing buttons on a touch screen, and vibrations used in Virtual Reality to allow users to "feel" certain items in game.
For skiing, haptics could be used to relay information to the skier about the guide's movements, or linked to GPS mapped markers on the course to let the skier know if they are off course or when they pass through a gate.
This lead me to my objective for this project:
How could a haptic base layer system improve the communication between visually impaired male skiers and their guide?
Visually impaired skiers follow a guide through the course. The guide and skier communicate using a bluetooth radio.
Visually impaired skiers catch glimpses of their guide, but overall depend on radio communication to know where to go. (Source: NYT)
Haptic vibrations are used to provide intuitive feedback in many electronics, such as Playstation controllers.
In order to confirm that my project would actually help athletes, I spoke to several visually impaired athletes.
Both athletes who I spoke to had frustrations with the communication via bluetooth headsets. These headsets are hard to hear during windy conditions, especially when racing at high speeds. Due to these communication challenges, both Courtney and Nicole have had experiences where they got separated from their guide midway down the mountain.
These athletes confirmed that haptics could be an awesome way to enhance this communication. Having confirmed my objective, I moved forwards into the design phase of the project.
Competitive Visually Impaired Snowboarder
Recreational Visually Impaired Skier
I started with rough sketches of what I wanted the outfit to look like. For these sketches I particularly focused on ways to integrate electronics and haptics into clothing in a functional and aesthetically pleasing way. I also considered different silhouettes and seam placements, and manufacturing approaches.
Prototyping: Compression Shirt
I started by prototyping the shirt. The most important consideration for the shirt is compression. In alpine skiing, compression has been shown to reduce muscle vibrations and increase muscle efficiency. Therefore, compression is an important feature in a performance base layer for alpine skiing.
Otherwise I kept the shirt design simple. I went for a turtleneck design with tactile rib-knit trims to help visually impaired users find the openings.
Prototyping the shirt pattern with a focus on compression and fit.
Prototyping: Pant Legs & Targeted Compression
In addition to general compression, I added targeted compression to key muscle groups in the legs such as the quads, and glutes. Targeted compression can provide additional stability to muscles, and can help prevent injuries.
To prototype this targeted compression I started by using Kineseo Tape to test different patterns and see what provided support in skiing positions.
I then implemented this compression into the pants using bemis tape (left) and two layers of fabric (right). The Bemis tape seemed better for aesthetics and for compression, so I moved forward with this strategy.
After I settled on the Bemis tape, I made another prototype that had haptics (circled) built in to test the location and appearance.
Prototypes: Embedded wires & Electronics
The next challenge I faced was how to integrate wires and electronics, which do not stretch, into a 4-way stretch garment. I had to find a solution that not only worked well, but also looked well constructed.
My general approach was to add curves to the wires to allow for stretch. This is similar to the loops in knit fabrics that allow rigid fibers to stretch with the body. After trying lot of trial and error, I ended up using a metal screen (cut on the bias for stretch) to give structure to the wires and hold them flat under the bemis tape.
These pictures show how I integrated this design into the final garment construction.
The wires and haptic motors are able to stretch and move with the body.
Prototyping: Electronics Development
I also developed a custom hardware for this project. The obvious function of this hardware is to drive the haptic motors. However, it also has to be able to charge the battery, program the microcontroller, and connect wirelessly to any bluetooth device. I also wrote code to connect via bluetooth to my laptop and turn on/off the haptic motors based on instructions from this bluetooth connection.
While the hardware for this project is not overly complicated, I only had 2 weeks to design, order, assemble, test, and program these electronics. This meant that everything had to work on the first try.
This block diagram explains the functions of the electronics I built.
The PCB (printed circuit board) I designed, manufactured by OSH PARK.
Assembling/programing the PCB.
The assembled PCB.
The PCB and battery fit into the low-profile pocket on the back of the pants.
Prototyping: Braille Tag
I also wanted to integrate braille into this garment. I tried a few different methods of manufacturing this braille:
First I tried 3D printing a Braille mold that I could pour silicone into.
Unfortunately, the silicone was too viscous to fill the small braille holes and left an ugly result.
My next strategy was to emboss braille into leather using a 3D printed press.
I really liked the look of this pressed leather, and I also liked that I could easily sew the leather "tag" I made onto the garment.
Features & Benefits
I used CLO to render this garment. I struggled to get accurate resolution of the wires, but otherwise the renderings came out great!
I did not learn CLO until after I finished this project, but in the future, I would like to incorporate CLO into the prototyping process.
CLO rendering of the bottoms.
CLO rendering of the top and bottom.
This was my final project for our Apparel Studio in the University of Oregon Sports Product Design program. I presented this project during our final critique at the end of the Winter 2022 term.
Turn the video volume UP to hear the haptic vibrations!