Medical Miracles for the Next Millennium, Fall 1998

That basic T-shirt isn’t only the most comfortable thing in your closet. Soon it will be the smartest. Using plastic optical fibers woven into a T-shirt, engineers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have come up with a "wearable motherboard" which can monitor heart rate, temperature, respiration and other bodily functions. Some vital signs can be monitored directly by sensors woven into the shirt; for other functions, a person fastens sensors to his or her body - the kind used in electrocardiograms, for example -and attaches them to the T-shirt with snaps. The signals can be transmitted to a receiver in a watch or bounced to a satellite and then back down to anywhere on earth.

The smart shirt was developed for the armed services as a way of tracking the health of soldiers on the battlefield. Medics miles away can find out immediately when a soldier goes down and how bad his injury is. Sensors can locate a gunshot wound and monitor vital signs while the medics travel to the scene. Tiny microphones in the shirt can instantly put caregivers in contact with the injured.

Dr, Sundaresan Jayaraman, head of the research team at Georgia Tech, hopes to infiltrate civilian society with this technology within five years. A postoperative patient could continuously be monitored as he recovers at home. Attendants in nursing homes could keep a closer watch on multiple patients. And law enforcement officers could wear the T-shirts while on their beats and be monitored back at headquarters.

"I can plug into any kind of sensor to monitor anything," says Jayaraman, suggesting applications for athletes concerned about stress or for parents concerned about sudden infant death syndrome,"This could be as ubiquitous as a home-alarm system."

The cost of the shirt? Astonishingly, Jayaraman says, it won’t be more that $35 (sensors not included). For those with a taste for something more expensive, there’s the Harry Winston "Heartthrob" broach. Sensors in the rubies make the gems glow with every heartbeat. Price tag: a cool $500,000.