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From racehorses to firefighters, Japanese firms expanding wearable tech products

In this photo taken on March 23, 2018, a dairy cow wears the "ushible" information terminal, which detects dryness and supplies water through the vest to keep the animal cool. (Photo courtesy of Gunze Ltd.)

The types of wearable information terminal products available is quickly expanding, with many major textile manufacturing companies applying their expertise in fiber and film product development to make truly "wearable" smart clothing items.

One such product is the stretchable conductive film "COCOMI" developed by Toyobo Co. in 2015. The 0.3-millimeter thick film can detect the heart's electrical signals, and by simply attaching it to clothing or other wearable items, it can measure the wearer's heartbeat. The company commercialized the film for use in the horse race industry in 2016. By adhering the film to a belt that is wrapped around the belly of the animal, it is possible to measure the horse's pulse, and convert training knowledge that had relied on human intuition into concrete numerical data.

Currently, the company is moving forward with field tests that entail attaching COCOMI film to the undershirts of humans to measure and alert wearers to changes in heartbeat that occur when they become sleepy. The goal is to develop a system to monitor and alert drivers so they don't fall asleep behind the wheel. Toyobo is also looking into the film's applications in the nursing care industry for the elderly.

An undershirt with stretchable conductive film "COCOMI" -- which can measure the wearer's pulse -- adhered to it, is seen in this photo taken on Dec. 27, 2016. (Photo courtesy of Toyobo Co.)

Teijin Ltd. also developed firefighting clothing last fall containing an internal temperature sensor to try to prevent wearers from suffering heatstroke on the job, even naming the product "smart firefighter clothing." By measuring the temperature inside of the clothing, the system estimates the internal body temperature of the wearer, sending a warning to both the firefighter and their manager when temperatures reach levels at which the risk of heatstroke is high.

Teijin holds some 70 percent of Japan's domestic market share for firefighting uniforms, and uses textiles and resins with an excellent track record of high fire-resistance. The firm is currently in the testing stage with "smart firefighter clothing," planning to have the system in use in the field before the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Gunze Ltd. came up with the idea of applying wearable information terminals to monitoring dairy cows. "Ushible," a play on the Japanese word for cow, "ushi," and the suffix "-able" in "wearable," which went on sale just this month, is not only a vest made of materials that provide a cooling sensation, but promotes heat loss through water evaporation by running water through it. This keeps dairy cows comfortable so the amount of milk they produce doesn't fall due to stress from the summer heat.

The special characteristics of the smart vest are conductive fibers woven into the material that detect the dryness of the vest and then provide the required amount of water through an externally attached tube to cool the cows. After a series of tests, the vest was successfully able to lower the body surface temperature of the animals by roughly 5 degrees Celsius. The price of each "ushible" starts at 9,000 yen, and six dairy farms have already decided to employ them.

"Smart firefighter clothing" with an internal temperature sensor and an information terminal worn on the chest to monitor data on the scene is pictured in this photo taken on Oct. 2, 2016. (Photo courtesy of Teijin Ltd.)

The wearable technology buzz began with the wild popularity of U.S. Apple Inc.'s "Apple Watch" that came out in 2015, prompting companies from various industry sectors, including textile manufacturers, to join the market and follow in Apple's footsteps.

To distinguish themselves from firms from developing countries, Japanese companies are trying to develop new products with the added value of high functionality and performance. Wearable information terminals stand at the front line of these efforts, carrying high hopes for growth and expansion.

(Japanese original by Natsuki Oka, Osaka Business News Department)

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