Computers are becoming more wearable. We carry them around in specially sized pockets, stay attached to them via wired or wireless headsets. We even monitor our body with watches or t-shirts designed to measure heart rate, temperature, and perspiration level.

On Alert
Adam Whiton and Yolita Nugent

It’s inevitable that as computers become more ubiquitous on the body, they will be enlisted to address social issues, among them abuse.

So says Adam Whiton, a technologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who, along with apparel designer Yolita Nugent, created a wearable clothing system designed to detect harsh pushes, grabs, slaps and hits. The system could help victims with the process of self-realization by accumulating a history of abuse or it could be coupled with a computer that that helps the victim explore therapeutic options.

"Abuse pretty much exists because it remains isolated," said Whiton. "How do you get people talking about it?"

Each year, about 8.5 million incidents of domestic violence are reported, according to the Center for Disease Control. "The only real evidence used now in domestic abuse is documenting bruises and eye witness testimony," said Whiton.

At the same time, electronics are merging with clothing. For example, Philips has a wearable digital camera and several jacket manufacturers have integrated electronics to control iPods.

Whiton and Nugent wanted to explore whether such wearable computers could eventually be tasked with other functions, like detecting abuse.

Their prototype system is a hoodie that has large fabric-based pressure sensors sewn into the liner. The sensors — which are divided into eight body zones, including upper chest, stomach, forearms, etc. — categorize and measure the intensity and patterns of forces exerted on the wearer’s body.

Whiton and Nugent interviewed abuse survivors to get feedback about the idea and then simulated aggressive interactions with research volunteers.

They discovered a couple of interesting facts. For example, the part of the body most prominently injured was the forearm. Victims are often grabbed by their wrist or put up their arm to block their face.

"When we correlated that with medical and police records of domestic abuse, we found that the forearms are the most heavily injured," said Whiton.

The team also found that the duration of a incident could be correlated with abuse. Some victims, for example, make up excuses that they bumped their face in a doorway or tripped and fell. But an accident lasts just one or two seconds, while an abusive attack is generally many seconds or many minutes long.

"What is really new is the way they use this technology," said Maximillian Sergio, IC design project leader at Silicon Biosystems in Bologna, Italy. "To use a wearable as a tool to detect attack; this is smart."

But wearable computers, like fashion, are driven by style and can’t look too much like computers, he said.

"One of the first challenges is to produce something that is exactly like normal clothes, otherwise people won’t want to use it," said Sergio.

The other thing is that there is no room for error or false alarms.

"You have to be sure that the sensor is working properly. You have to be confident that in 100 percent of the cases, what you’re seeing is what you’re seeing, that if you see something strange, it’s not due to a bug."

Whiton sees the garment as supplementing knowledge, not necessarily being the last word in interpreting data.

"Although people like school teachers and nurses are required by law to report any suspected abuse to the department of social services…It can be an extremely subjective process," said Whiton.

Not everyone victimized by abuse would necessarily wear such a garment. But it could be given to children in foster care as a way to monitor their care, or to elderly people in a nursing home environment. The garment could also be coupled with a computer and an artificial intelligent agent that is able to interpret the data and initiate a conversation with the victim.

It isn’t therapy, but the developers hope it could encourage people toward that path.

Via: Discovery Channel