Wearable Superpowers for Earth and Beyond

21:19 minutes

Spiderman’s sixth sense, “spider sense,” tingles when danger is near. But that superpower isn’t just the stuff of comic books anymore. Technologists at the University of Minnesota have designed real-life gloves that, yes, tingle when they sense nearby objects. They use an ultrasonic sensor to detect what firefighters cannot, allowing them to “see” through smoke. In this special live taping from Saint Paul, Minnesota’s Fitzgerald Theater, Ira Flatow talks with Lucy Dunne and Brad Holschuh of UM’s Wearable Technology Lab about future apparel for our home planet—and beyond.

The Wearable Technology Lab's Back to the Future jacket. It works by using actuators that can shrink the jacket on command.
The Wearable Technology Lab’s “Back to the Future” jacket. It works by using actuators that can shrink the jacket on command. Image by University of Minnesota Wearable Technology Lab
  • Dunne’s method for attaching electronic components to fabrics, using both sewing and soldering. Photo by Lucy E. Dunne

  • These vibrating fire gloves could help firefighters “see” through smoke by relating the intensity of vibration to the distance between the glove’s ultrasonic sensor and the closest obstacle. Photo by Tony Carton

  • These knee-sensing stockings use a soft-stitched sensor Dunne developed to detect the position of the knee, and provide tactile feedback for rehabilitation. Photo by Crystal Compton

  • The moisture glove is meant to be worn under astronauts’ gloves to wick moisture from their palms to the back of their hands, to prevent fingernails falling off, and other space glove side effects. Photo by Karen Fiegen, Claire Ward, and Paul Erling

Segment Guests

Lucy Dunne

Lucy Dunne is Co-director of the Wearable Technology Lab and  Director of the Apparel Design Program at University of Minnesota’s College of Design in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Brad Holschuh

Brad Holschuh is Co-director of the Wearable Technology Lab, and an assistant professor in University of Minnesota’s College of Design in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow coming to you from the Fitzgerald Theater in Saint Paul, Minnesota.


IRA FLATOW: He has superhuman strength, he can stick to walls and shoot spiderwebs from his wrists. And yes, you know who I’m talking about, it’s Spider-Man. And don’t forget about this sixth sense.

SPIDER-MAN: My spider senses are starting to tingle.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, when that happens, be careful. Well, if you thought that was just the stuff of comic books, think again. Because one of my next guests has designed actual gloves that, yes, tingle when they sense a nearby object. And just like spider sense, they see what we cannot, sensing danger in a dark smoky room for those real life superheroes– firefighters.

They’re just one of the wearable superpowers we’re going to be talking about tonight. I want to introduce my guests. Lucy Dunne is co-director of the Wearable Technology Lab and director of the Apparel Design Program at the University of Minnesota’s College of Design here in Saint Paul. Welcome to Science Friday.


Brad Holschuh co-directs the Wearable Technology Lab with Lucy Dunne. Welcome to Science Friday. He’s an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s College of Design. Welcome, both of you.


LUCY DUNNE: Thank you.

BRAD HOLSCHUH: Good to be here.


IRA FLATOW: You notice something unusual about the jacket he’s wearing? I think he got ripped off at the store for the fitting on that jacket. It looks a little too big. What’s the deal on that jacket?

BRAD HOLSCHUH: Do you want to see it go? Yeah?

IRA FLATOW: Absolutely. Whoa. Your left arm is retracting? It’s making a smaller jacket. Whoa, how do you do that?

BRAD HOLSCHUH: Magic. No, we work at the Wearable Technology Lab on wearable technology. In this jacket, we have active materials. So these are materials that can change shape under stimulation. So what you don’t see here– inside these gloves, inside these forearms, we have shape-changing materials that under stimulation–

IRA FLATOW: Oh, just like that.



BRAD HOLSCHUH: Yeah, just like that.

IRA FLATOW: Is there a practical use for this sort of thing? I mean, is it just you want to be cool?

BRAD HOLSCHUH: We know with Back to the Future, the anniversary was just a week and a half ago. And this is the future, this is 2015. We should have clothing that can change its shape, right?

IRA FLATOW: Hey, I’m all for that.

BRAD HOLSCHUH: We should have that, so that was what we did. We proved that we have the ability to do what the movie showed. Fun fact, I’m not sure if you guys have seen the behind-the-scenes of Back to the Future. To do what that jacket did on film, it took four assistants laying on the ground right outside the frame to reel in Marty McFly’s jacket.

IRA FLATOW: Well, you could do with one hand what it took four.

BRAD HOLSCHUH: There’s no one hiding.

IRA FLATOW: Certainly not here. Lucy, let’s talk about one of your inventions. I mentioned it before, the ultrasonic glove. How does it work? You’re showing it to us?

LUCY DUNNE: Sure. So it uses an ultrasonic range finder or distance sensor on the back of it, which uses ultrasonic waves to detect the distance between your hand and the nearest object. So it works like the way a bat hears– or sorry– navigates. And because it’s not visible light, it can pass through things like smoke or darkness. So what we do, because humans can’t perceive that ultrasonic signal, is we map it to a tactile signal.

So if a firefighter is navigating a new building that they don’t know anything about and they’re trying to find, say, an egress or something like that, they can use this beam to kind of shine around the room and feel how far away the nearest obstacles might be, or feel where a gap might be so they can get out.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, so really that’s something that firefighters– it could save lives. It’s not just something for fun. I know that you and your students– it looks cool, though. Looked like there’s an eye looking right at me here, you can see it. I know that you and your students are actually working with NASA to come up with a new astronaut glove. What’s wrong with the ones that they have now?

LUCY DUNNE: Well, the glove of the space suit is a really, really complex piece of technology. And there are a lot of areas where it could potentially be improved. One of the things that we’ve worked on is dealing with the moisture that builds up inside the glove. So the rest of the suit– the suit itself is kind of a contained environment. So anything that your body produces in terms of moisture or heat is just contained within that bubble. And most of the suit is regulated by a liquid cooling garment and ventilation garment that circulates air and circulates cool water to keep your body regulated.

But that system is pretty bulky and it doesn’t fit within this really complicated constrained glove. So your hands still sweat. And in the vacuum of space and with no gravity, there’s not really anywhere for that liquid to go, it doesn’t drip, it just coats your hands. So–

IRA FLATOW: It’s slimy hands.

LUCY DUNNE: Yeah, and things like your fingernails falling off.

IRA FLATOW: I hate it when that happens. Fingernails falling off– no wonder you want a new kind of glove.

LUCY DUNNE: Yeah, so we designed a little glove to go underneath it that takes that moisture and transports it from where it’s produced to a place that’s good to allow it to build up, so to the back of the hand where it won’t get in the way of dexterity.

IRA FLATOW: You mentioned how bulky those old space suits were, and I know that you’re working on a project to make the space suits less bulky. Because anybody who’s seen the astronauts bouncing around on the moon, they could see that it was virtually impossible if something fell down for them to pick it up, right.

BRAD HOLSCHUH: Right, right, I think we have a clip.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, this is Harrison Schmitt’s–

BRAD HOLSCHUH: Apollo 17, 1972, Jack Schmitt drops his equipment and he falls over. If you go to YouTube and you put in astronauts falling down, there’s lots of videos like this. It’s pretty funny.

IRA FLATOW: So, how do you make this suit, how do you tighten it up or make this suit less bulky? What’s the secret here?

BRAD HOLSCHUH: So we have to think a little bit about why space suits are designed the way that they are. Space suits are a bubble. They are a human-shaped bubble. And they put you in a gas environment. The gas serves two rules. It obviously gives you something to breathe, everybody can appreciate that. But it also provides pressure against your skin which, in the vacuum of space, is also a necessity. So, when the suits were designed for the space race, and frankly the suits that are designed still today kill two birds with one stone. They put you in a gas bubble and that gas solves both of those problems.

The drawback is that, as you saw in the video, balloons– which the suit is– don’t like to be bent. If you’ve ever taken a party balloon and crushed it, what happens– it springs back to life. That’s what the space suit does at every single opportunity. So to form a fist, to hold the tool, to do any activity wearing a space suit, not only do you have to perform the task but you have to fight the suit to do it.

So, what we are studying at the U and what I’ve studied in my past life is an alternative design to space suits, and they’re called mechanical counter pressure suits. These are suits that are skin tight. The idea being you still wear a helmet that’s filled with pressurized gas. You can’t get around that. But you get the pressure against your body from a tight-fitting material. And if you do it right, you avoid all of these mobility problems.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, I know the history of our space suit design, Lucy, really, the first people tasked with designing the suits were engineers, right.

LUCY DUNNE: Well, there was a competition for the early suits and there were a lot of bids from engineering companies. But ultimately, the firm that won the most functional suit was a company that you guys all might know under a different name. Right now, they’re known as ILC Dover, but ILC stands for the International Latex Corporation, which is also known as Playtex.

IRA FLATOW: The living bra people? They made the first space suit?

LUCY DUNNE: They did, yeah.

IRA FLATOW: How can they add to that?


LUCY DUNNE: Space suits have always been a beautiful marriage of clothing, design and engineering.

IRA FLATOW: How do you take it a step further, Brad? I know we’re all familiar with the idea of a wearable technology, smart watches, things like that to measure your vital signs and report things back to you. Can suits of the future be designed like that to be more responsive?

BRAD HOLSCHUH: I think so. To make one of these skin suits, it has to be responsive. The picture that we see on the left up there is called the space activity suit, which was tested in the ’70s. And what they don’t tell you and what you can’t see in that picture is that it was eight layers thick and it took three assistants 45 minutes to help that guy get in the suit. And so it worked but it was not practical. That suit has to be 10 times tighter than your average medical-grade compression stocking.

So if any of you have ever worn one of those or have known someone who has worn one of those, putting one of those on is tough. Imagine it’s 10 times tighter. That’s what that suit has to do to keep you alive in space.

LUCY DUNNE: Any of you have put Spanx on, it’s like that.

BRAD HOLSCHUH: So to answer your question about having multifunctional garments of the future, we developed actuators that can make these suits tighten on command. And that is actually the same technology that we put into this jacket. These shape-memory materials, when you stimulate them, contract, and contract with enough force to produce that level of compression. It’s hard to appreciate how tight it is, but that little thing on the screen right there can lift 20 pounds through nothing more than an applied current. And so that’s what we used to lift these sleeves. It’s the same technology that we’re going to put in space suits of the future.

IRA FLATOW: Does it make it uncomfortable? I mean–

BRAD HOLSCHUH: They get warm. I’m a little warm right now.

IRA FLATOW: I think you’re hot right now. Lucy, what about regular clothing for the rest of us? Would kind of technology are we looking forward to?

LUCY DUNNE: We’re interested in the far far future of clothes. And I think one of the exciting concepts that really gets us fired up is the idea that instead of having a wardrobe full of all these different garments that are really only different by the way they look, mostly they perform the same narrow range of functions. If you could replace that with a perfect, beautiful, unified garment that could be any garment that you wanted it to be, then we would be in a really different place. But one of the things that it would need to do is change shape, so change color, change pattern, but also change shape.

IRA FLATOW: We’re not going to see this soon at Lululemon anytime soon, are we?

LUCY DUNNE: Not this year.

IRA FLATOW: But I’m looking at this and it looks like something out of a– it is like a science fiction movie but also something that it looks like the military would be interested in.

BRAD HOLSCHUH: Yeah, absolutely. If you think about what you can do with clothing that can tighten you, we’re talking about one step away from being an active tourniquet. So, if you want military wear that a soldier could wear in the field, if they were to incur an injury, they might not make it back alive without medical intervention. Say you have a suit that tightens as soon as it senses that injury, you can stay alive to get back to your medic and to get back to help.

IRA FLATOW: I see a movie here, somewhere.


LUCY DUNNE: Probably has Matt Damon in it. He probably gets stuck somewhere.

IRA FLATOW: Someone is taking notes in the audience. What about everyday clothing like stockings and things? Could they be made more responsive to needs?

LUCY DUNNE: Yes, so a lot of what we do tries to preserve the kind of everyday aesthetics of clothing. And I know maybe this is an exception, but broadly speaking, I think it’s really important to understand the everyday needs that people have in clothing. So for instance, we do have a pair of stockings that uses a stitched sensor to detect the position of your knee, in that case. But it could be any joint on your body. And then it’s programmable to give you feedback about the way that you’re moving, so maybe that’s for rehab, maybe that’s for sports or dancing or any other application, just to give you a little cue about how you’re trying to move.

IRA FLATOW: Well, what happens if something goes wrong. It senses something incorrectly and starts to tourniquet the wrong part of your body. For example, the stocking starts to do something to your leg that it’s not supposed to do. Can you build in stuff that will detect that?

BRAD HOLSCHUH: Yeah, sensors and actuators are symbiotic, right. If you build sensors you can collect information, but there’s no action. If you implement actuators without sensing, then you’re right, you might boa constrictor yourself into a real bad situation. So, it’s a great partnership that Lucy and I have at the Wearable Tech Lab because Lucy’s expertise comes from wearable computing, wearable sensing, the collection of information about the body. And I’m coming on board now and bringing on some of these actuated systems, and there’s a whole lot of cool stuff you can do with it.

IRA FLATOW: Now, you see people a lot of times who– how do they say– it looks like they dressed in the dark. Is there anything you can do for us to make sure that something happens to the clothing that says, that’s not going to work. That’s something like that, don’t show up with that color combination.

LUCY DUNNE: Ironically, it’s way easier to teach a garment to sense your activities than it is to teach a computer how to dress you. We’ve spent a lot of time looking at that problem of how do humans put together outfits and what makes an outfit good or not good, and it is a very difficult thing to encode. But it’s a really exciting problem.

IRA FLATOW: That’s when you’ll get, really, a lot of interest in it when people will learn how to dress better like that, then it goes viral and I want one of those.

LUCY DUNNE: No actually, what we find is across the board everybody wants to look better. So maybe that sounds obvious, but–

IRA FLATOW: I don’t think to a bunch of nerdy people that’s quite obvious.

LUCY DUNNE: Wherever people are, they want to be one notch better than that.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow, this is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. And we’re here in Saint Paul talking about clothing with Brad Holschuh and Lucy Dunne. Here’s an idea, what about if I rip– people like to wear the jeans that are all ripped and everything, but not all of us are there. What about self-healing clothing, it detects it’s going to get ripped or something and it starts to heal itself. You’re shaking your head like yes.

BRAD HOLSCHUH: Yeah, well, we’ve come about this from the space suit angle because if a meteorite punctures your suit, you’re going to have a bad day. So, it’s a critically–

IRA FLATOW: It’ll leave a mark, I think.

BRAD HOLSCHUH: Yeah, right. Yes, so I mean people are probably familiar with materials like ripstop, which are fabrics that have been engineered in a way to have the capability to stop a rip or to at least prevent a rip from spreading. So those types of materials are very appealing in wearables. But to get to your other point, self-healing materials are a new avenue of research and they typically include shape-memory polymers that are embedded into the structure of the material. So, it’s very exciting and I think the clothing of the future– high functional clothing of the future will have those types of capabilities.

IRA FLATOW: Is nanotechnology have anything to do with all of this stuff? Isn’t nanoparticles everywhere now, and clothing [INAUDIBLE] made of nanoparticles?

LUCY DUNNE: Little bits, here and there. I don’t think a lot of it has reached the consumer market, yet. But it definitely has potential.

BRAD HOLSCHUH: What’s most interesting to me is materials that have been nano-constructed. And that’s where they take at the molecular level and build scaffolds to give you materials with extremely interesting material properties that are 98% air. And so if you think about making clothing out of those types of materials, you’ll see it, but you might not even feel it.

IRA FLATOW: If you have any questions in the audience you’d like to ask our guests, please feel free, put up your hands and somebody will get to you. You remind me of a conversation we had about new kinds of clothing, and I asked– we were doing a program on sneakers– and I asked somebody, can you 3D print a shoe, right. And you were both shaking your heads. How easy is it to 3D print these things now, Lucy?

LUCY DUNNE: Well, It depends on what you want the shoe to be made out of. Some materials are easier to 3D print than others. But there’s a lot of exciting work, especially on the aesthetic side. It really opens up some interesting possibilities for the way that shoes can look when your manufacturing process is additive rather than shaping or cutting away.

IRA FLATOW: Could we 3D print other pieces of apparel? Why just shoe?

BRAD HOLSCHUH: Absolutely you can.

IRA FLATOW: When I expressed a little doubt about this, the scientist, the engineer looked at me and said, Ira, you’re so 2009. I mean, look at me, I haven’t had anything 3D printed. I mean, I have an Apple Watch, that sort of thing. We’ll be back with more of the science of superpowers after this.


Zap, pow, bam, wham. Just a reminder, this is Science Friday from PRI.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow talking with Lucy Dunne and Brad Holschuh about wearable technology. If you could have any piece of apparel, there’s a new kind of wearable thing that you could have today, what would you like to have that we don’t have now. Let me ask you first, Brad.

BRAD HOLSCHUH: Well, if you ask me, I want the skin-tight space suit. You guys have seen The Martian, you’ve seen–


BRAD HOLSCHUH: Right, we’re talking about going back to space, we’re talking about doing exciting things. Planetary exploration, going to Mars, we need suits like that. So it’s my passion. I want to send people to space and I want them to not fall down when they walk around on space. That’s what I want.

IRA FLATOW: Do you have anything that you would like to wear tomorrow, if you could?

LUCY DUNNE: Yes and no. I would like to wear the thing that I want to wear tomorrow, but I want it to be all the things I want to wear for the rest of the week, as well. So I want one garment to rule them all that looks like whatever I want it to look like that day. And then, what’s exciting is if I have this one beautiful garment, I can build in– it’s not like that distant that it could have a jet pack in it. Maybe not that exactly, but it could have all these other things in it that I wouldn’t want in one specific garment but I would want in all garments. All the things that my mobile phone does, things like that.

IRA FLATOW: I want a jet pack, too. That’s the first thing I want in the morning. Question from the audience. Yes.

AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: I understand that there is self-cleaning material or self-cleaning outfits that are worn, perhaps in the military. Can you describe the functionality, how does it actually work?

LUCY DUNNE: Sure. Most self-cleaning textiles are engineered to address one aspect of hygiene or cleanliness. So, for instance, they might include silver threads to be antimicrobial, so there’s less buildup of odor and bacteria. Or, they might be engineered to shed dirt, the way that like a lotus leaf does. Or, they might just have an extremely hydrophobic surface treatment so that liquid stains can’t penetrate.

I’m not sure that I’ve seen a single material that incorporates all of those things. But in theory, if you could get at all the things that lead to things we perceive as dirty, then we would have a perfectly self-cleaning textile.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, self-cleaning. Can’t wait for that. One more question on this side.

AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: Yes, I wonder if the panel could address this. I saw for sale hats and sun hats that had a fabric that was providing cooling from your own sweating beyond ordinary. It seemed a little bit impossible. Is that actually real? Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Hmm, cooling.

LUCY DUNNE: So it could be promoting evaporation. In order for your sweat to be really effective in cooling you, it needs to have somewhere to go. And when you’re covering it with a textile layer like a hat, that can really inhibit the evaporation. So most of the wicking fast-dry fabrics that are out there are really aimed at transporting that sweat from underneath the textile to the other side of the textile so that it can go somewhere.

IRA FLATOW: Lucy Dunne is co-director of the Wearable Technology Lab and director of the Apparel Design Program at the University of Minnesota’s College of Design here in Saint Paul. And Brad Holschuh co-directs the Wearable Technology Lab with Lucy, and he’s an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s College of Design. Thank you both for taking time to get [INAUDIBLE].

LUCY DUNNE: Thank you.


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